James Graham

Here’s an icebreaker for the next office party: The third leading cause of workplace death—behind “falls to a lower level” and “roadway collisions with other vehicles”—is homicide.

This sobering data point comes courtesy of the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics study on fatal occupational injuries. What’s behind all this shooting (the leading m.o. of workplace murderers, according to the study) and “stabbing, cutting, slashing, piercing” (the runner-up category)? News reports point to doomed love triangles and disgruntled co-workers. Another cause, however, has been largely overlooked: fraud. Imagine a boss who kills his assistant to keep a Ponzi scheme afloat, or a crooked accountant who poisons an especially thorough auditor. In the world of CFEs (certified fraud examiners), these offenses have their own, pulpy label: red-collar crime.

Frank S. Perri, a CFE and defense attorney who teaches forensic accounting at DePaul University, coined the term after working on a murder case in 2005, an embezzlement scam that ended with a salesman—Perri’s client—convicted of smashing his partner’s skull with a claw hammer. Perri says his client was well-spoken and had no known history of violence or arrests. That’s part of why he was so dangerous. “Research shows the more that people reflect our own image, the more we are inclined to give them what is called an ‘implied credibility,’ ” he told me. “But these people can be very predatory.”

In “Red Collar Crime,” published in the International Journal of Psychological Studies in 2015, Perri describes a few dozen fraud-related homicides and attempted homicides that he researched in detail. Consider Aaron Hand, the former president of American Financial Group who plotted a $100 million mortgage fraud. After he was jailed, Hand tried to hire hit men to silence an informer. His quotes read like dialogue from a Scorsese movie (“I wish I was there to watch him suffer”). Hand’s bid failed, but Perri describes others that succeeded. Entries from the article’s accompanying tables suggest a special office edition of Clue: Irwin—Accounting Fraud, Gun; Albert—Identity Fraud, Bludgeon; Velma—Forgery, Poison.

Perri finds two traits to be most correlated with white-collar violence: narcissism and psychopathy. The latter is even more common than you might expect in the business world. In a 2010 study, researchers administered a test frequently used to gauge psychopathy to 203 managers and executives at seven companies. On a 40-point scale, the average person scores 3 or below. Shockingly, eight subjects pulled a score of 30 or higher, which is serial-killer territory. “Their excellent communication and convincing lying skills, which together would have made them attractive hiring candidates in the first place, apparently continued to serve them well,” the researchers concluded.

How many office psychopaths turn violent is less clear: The FBI doesn’t track red-collar crime, nor does osha. Richard G. Brody, another CFE and an accounting professor at the University of New Mexico, sometimes trawls the web for murder trials involving white-collar defendants, and has become convinced that red-collar crime is more prevalent than most people suspect. Detectives don’t always spot such homicides, he told me, so crime scenes may be contaminated and murders may pass for suicide. “Whenever I read about high-profile executives who are found dead, I immediately think red-collar crime,” he said. “Lots of people are getting away with murder.”

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This article appears in the October 2018 print edition with the headline “The Killer in the Cubicle.”