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When Employees Turn Deadly at Work

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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.'"

Denenberg says companies with formal grievance procedures could help some angry workers feel that their complaint has been heard by an impartial third party. For some, violent actions were the final result from encountering real problems that were never resolved. "If somebody had looked at the actual facts, what happened could have been avoided."

He recalls a 1998 office shooting at a Connecticut state lottery headquarters that left four executives dead, and how he called the employee's union chief to get information about the gunman. "He said, 'My first reaction was, I hope it's not Matt Beck,'" Denenberg says.

 It was.

Kathy Bunch is a Philadelphia freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications. She is a frequent contributor to WebMD.

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