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When Employees Turn Deadly at Work

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Denenberg examined a 1997 incident in a California plastics factory, where the notion that a particular employee was gay became a running joke around the plant and, apparently, there was little concern about how it was affecting the man on the receiving end.

One day, the man reported to the factory with a gun and shot four office managers and two other employees. As he was firing, he reportedly shouted: "Damn it, I am not a homosexual."

Lynne Falkin McClure, PhD, is a Phoenix psychologist and consultant who wrote Risky Business: Managing Employee Violence in the Workplace. She describes eight types of behavior that could signal risk of violence at work. She says the way McDermott was acting at the consulting firm near Boston matches three of these behavior types and should have been easy to single out.

"The first was what I call 'fragmentor behavior,' where the employee takes no responsibility for his own actions," she says, explaining that McDermott blamed his employers for his problems with the IRS, when he really had caused the problem himself.

 McClure calls McDermott's second warning sign "shocker behavior" -- actions that are "extreme or out-of-character." She notes that he had an angry outburst in the office one week before the shootings.

In addition, the unkempt and obese McDermott displayed poor hygiene and social skills, something that McClure calls "stranger behavior." She says the Internet employee's fixation on his income-tax problem was similar, in some ways, to Unabomber Ted Kaczynski's obsession with computers.

McClure advises employers to watch for these other types of behavior as well:

  • Actor behavior: An employee acts out his or her anger instead of trying to resolve it.
  • Me-first behavior: An employee does things for his or her own benefit, regardless of how it might affect the company or co-workers.
  • Mixed-messenger behavior: An employee's positive self-image is contradicted by his or her actions.
  • Wooden-stick behavior: A worker's actions are rigid or inflexible.
  • Escape-artist behavior: An employee avoids reality through lying or substance abuse.

McClure says if an office manager recognizes the warning signs in problem employees, he or she can require the workers to get training on how to deal with their issues. Also, a supervisor may offer advice to such workers on how they should take responsibility for their own actions. Those who don't cooperate should face company sanctions.

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