When Employees Turn Deadly at Work

Working It Out

5 min read

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:

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.

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.

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.