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When Employees Turn Deadly at Work

Working It Out

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"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.

The modern high-pressure office, with its narrow cubicles and profit pressures, has created a market for companies or clinics that help identify potentially violent workers.

At Chicago's Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, doctors at its Isaac Ray Center, working with a San Diego firm, have organized a team of psychiatrists and psychologists to work with companies. Officials with the program say problems typically are stress-related and begin with inappropriate language such as swearing, name-calling, or yelling -- then escalate when the employee vandalizes company property or steals from a co-worker to sabotage his or her career.

Such an employee may move on to violence or harassment. With more and more courts finding companies liable for such acts of violence in their offices, the Chicago-based program hopes to develop software that smaller businesses -- like the consulting firm where McDermott worked -- can use to develop prevention plans.

"It's often a problem without a name or an address -- people don't know what to call their concerns about an unsafe situation in the workplace," Denenberg says. "It's underreported because people wonder, 'If I tell on somebody, will it hurt my career?' They'll say 'I don't want to drop the dime on a guy who has 11 kids and get him fired.'"

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