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Men's Health

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When Employees Turn Deadly at Work

Working It Out
WebMD Feature

Fifteen years ago, a postal worker stormed into a post office in Royal Oak, Mich., and killed five people.

Later, experts said that many of the 911 emergency calls from the scene were almost identical:

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Dispatcher: "Who is doing the shooting?"
Caller: "I can't see him, but it must be Tom McIlvane."

It seemed that everyone in that workplace knew that McIlvane, who had a running grievance with his supervisors, was the co-worker most likely to turn violent. Yet no one took steps to intervene.

A similar drama unfolded more recently at an Internet consulting firm near Boston, where a disgruntled employee reported for work the day after Christmas and started shooting. When 42-year-old Michael McDermott was through, seven co-workers were dead. It was the fourth time in little more than 14 months that an employee had killed five or more of his co-workers in a shooting spree.

The federal government reports that homicide is the third-leading cause of death in the workplace, with 674 killings in 2000, the most recent year for which statistics are available. While some of these were domestic disputes that spilled over into the office, disgruntled employees were to blame in many others, leaving stunned co-workers to wonder how such tragedies could have been avoided.

With concern growing about violence in the workplace, psychologists and others who study the subject say there may be ways to tell the difference between an employee who is merely eccentric or a little too aggressive and one who could cause serious harm. And both employers and employees may need to take a more-active role in identifying these people, seeking help before it's too late.

"Many of the cases that we noted in our book on the violence-prone workplace resulted from garden-variety problems that were allowed to fester," says Richard Denenberg, co-author of The Violence-Prone Workplace: A New Approach to Dealing With Hostile, Threatening and Uncivil Behavior.

Denenberg, who heads the nonprofit Workplace Solutions in Red Hook, N.Y., says supervisors or other employees are afraid to get involved, while anger builds up. So the teasing or tormenting or bullying other workers keeps happening, or the arguments continue over who had the right to use a workbench or a tool, he says.

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