OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS

 

▪ CHAPTER NINE ▪
OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS

“How much more grievous are the consequences
of our anger than the acts which arouse it.”
Marcus Aurelius


Dear Laura,

It’s time to remove the kid gloves. It’s my option to make your life miserable if that is what you really want. I told you if I get fired or lose my clearance, I can force you to go out with me. You asked me what I could do, Kill you? The answer to that was + still is No. If I killed you, you would not be able to regret what you did. I have your parents address, so what if you run, I’m ready to follow. I’m selling my houses, I have closed my retirement fund, sold my stock. I can go real quick. Let’s say you don’t back down + pretty soon I crack under the pressure + run amok, destroying everything in my path until the police catch me + kill me.

Take care,
Rick

As you read this letter, your intuition cries out for more details. Who is Rick? Who is Laura? What is their relationship? Did he get fired? Your intuition tells you to be curious because more information means a better prediction. You want to know the context, but knowing just what’s in the letter, you can still use the JACA elements to see things the original readers did not see. It speaks of Rick’s justification for violence (losing his job), his shrinking alternatives(taking off the kid gloves), the favorable consequences to violence (making Laura regret what she did), and his high ability (he has her parent’s address, has sold off his possessions and is ready to go).

 

The man who wrote the letter is named Richard Farley, and the woman he wrote to is Laura Black. They met while employed at a high-tech Silicon Valley company called ESL, a subsidiary of TRW. Farley had asked Laura Black to go out with him, and when she declined, he refused to accept her rejections. The company tried several interventions to make him stop bothering her, but with each one his harassment escalated. Eventually it included death threats. He also sent along an enclosure with one letter that chillingly communicated her vulnerability: It was a key to the front door of her home.

When supervisors at ESL told Farley that he’d be fired if he kept this up, his sinister reaction prompted one of them to ask him incredulously, “Are you saying that if you are fired you will kill me?”

“Not just you,” Farley answered.

Around this time, Laura reluctantly sought a restraining order against Farley. Her intuition about him was right on the mark when she told the court, “I am afraid of what this man might do to me if I file this action.”

Farley was fired from ESL and banned from the premises, but he came back one day with a vengeance. He passed through the access doors—literally through them—after blasting out the glass with one of the shotguns he’d brought along. He was also carrying a rifle and several handguns as he walked around the building furiously shooting at his former coworkers.

When he finally found Laura Black, he shot her once with a rifle and left her bleeding on the floor. He shot ten other people that day, seven of whom died. Laura, though losing blood and consciousness, was able to crawl out of the building.

Later she told me, “The restraining order was the catalyst that pushed him over the edge. I hesitated a long time before I went forward to get it, but the company urged me on. Ultimately, I was told that my reluctance might be impacting my advancement at work. That was when I finally said, ‘Okay, it’s worth taking a chance.’ The shooting was the day before we were to appear in court with Farley to make the temporary restraining order permanent.”

But Laura spent that day and many more in the hospital. Farley spent that day and many more in jail. Newspeople spent that day, and many more, reporting that Farley had “just snapped” and gone on a shooting spree. But that never, ever happens.

 

JACA has shown you that people don’t just “snap.” There is a process as observable, and often as predictable, as water coming to a boil. Though we call it workplace violence, it is really every type of violence, committed by every type of perpetrator. It is revenge killing, when an employee who feels humiliated or emasculated proves that he cannot be taken lightly. It is domestic violence, when a husband seeks out his wife at her work. It is date stalking, when the man who refuses to let go pursues his victim at her job. It is rage killing, when an employee primed to do something big and bad chooses to do it at work. The fear of violence at work is understandable because work is a place where many of us are forced to interact with people we did not choose to have in our lives.

Fortunately, violence in the workplace offers many predictive opportunities, and there are almost always several people in a position to observe the warning signs. Still, as the cases show, obvious warnings are frequently ignored. The cases also show that it doesn’t have to be that way.

▪ ▪ ▪

Though you may not recognize the name Pat Sherill, he is one of the reasons that when you think of shooting sprees at work, you think of the U.S. Postal Service. The forty-four-year old Oklahoma letter carrier was known to coworkers as Crazy Pat. In 1986, soon after his supervisors threatened to fire him, he came to work with something more than just his usual anger at his bosses: He brought along three pistols as well. Sherill shot twenty coworkers, fourteen of whom died, and then he killed himself.

Contrary to the public perception that Sherill helped cement, the statistics for violence by employees of the postal service are actually better than for most industries in America. It’s just that with hundreds of thousands of full-time employees and nearly a million people affiliated with the service in some way, odds are they’ll have more of everything—more failure, more medical problems, more creativity, more laziness, more kindness, more violence. There are shooting incidents at fast-food restaurants more often than at post offices, but they are not reported as if part of some trend. (This is not to say that postal service management style and strategies are everything they could be, but rather to debunk the myth that they are the worst in the nation.)

Though Sherill’s attack was a bloodbath, within the year another angry employee would make it look like a minor incident by comparison. A USAir employee named David Burke was the man in the news this time. After the incident, reporters learned plenty of things about Burke that USAir could have benefited from knowing when they decided to hire him: He had a history that included drug trafficking, shoplifting, and auto theft, as well as violence toward his girlfriend. He had cut the wires in her car, beaten her, and threatened her with a gun. It had reached the point that she’d gotten a restraining order against him.

 

Burke’s troubling behavior went with him to work, where he left a death threat on the answering machine of his supervisor, Ray Thompson, whom he blamed for many of his problems. Burke insisted he was being singled out for racial reasons and he was indignant when USAir fired him for stealing sixty-nine dollars. Another USAir employee (with very poor judgment) lent Burke a .44 magnum revolver. It would never be returned.

When USAir fired Burke, they failed to take back his airport ID badge, and he wore it on his last day alive. Because of that badge, the woman operating the metal detector waved Burke around it and said, “Have a nice day.” He replied, “I’ll have a very nice day.” He then walked into Thompson’s office and demanded his job back. Thompson said no, then cut the discussion short because he was flying to San Francisco. Soon after, Burke stood in line and bought a ticket for the same flight. Unlike the other passengers taking their seats on Flight 1771 that afternoon, Burke did not care where the plane was scheduled to go, because he already knew where it would end up.

After take-off, he wrote a note on an air-sickness bag: “Hi Ray. I think it’s sort of ironical that we end up like this. I asked for some leniency for my family, remember? And I got none. And you’ll get none.”

At twenty-two thousand feet, the flight crew heard two shots (Burke had just killed Ray Thompson). They immediately radioed air traffic controllers: “There’s gunfire aboard!” Seconds later, the plane’s black box recorded three more shots, then some commotion, then a final shot.

 

The tower tried to re-contact the pilots, but the jet was no longer under their control. It was now under the firm control of gravity as it made a seven-hundred-miles-per-hour descent into the ground. Forty-three people died instantly, making Burke the perpetrator of the single worst workplace violence tragedy in American history. The worst, but far from the last.

We generally think of these shooting sprees as being committed by employees at large corporations or government agencies, but an increasing number are perpetrated by stalkers, patrons, and even college students. Several of our clients now are major universities. In years past, they would not have had these concerns, but violence finds its way into every institution of our culture, and people not expecting it are also not prepared for it.

 

Often, the signs are all there, but so is the denial. For example, after some terrible on-campus violence, school officials will describe a perpetrator as having been “a student in good standing.” Such descriptions are meant to say, “Who could have known?” but further inquiry always answers that question.

The case of college student Wayne Lo is an informative example. On the morning of the day he became famous, Wayne received a package at the college. A receptionist was suspicious about its contents (suspicion is a signal of intuition) because of two words on the return address: “Classic Arms.” She correctly notified resident directors, who took the package to a regularly scheduled meeting with the dean, Bernard Rodgers. Staff members wanted to open the package, which they thought might contain a weapon, but Dean Rodgers said it would be improper for the college to interfere with the delivery of a student’s mail. He did agree that a member of the staff could approach Wayne Lo to discuss it.

 

Wayne was allowed to pick up the package and take it to his room. Soon after, Trinka Robinson, the resident director of his dormitory, came and asked Wayne what was in his heavy little package. He refused to open it. She asked again, and he again refused, so she left. When she returned later with her husband, Floyd, the box had been opened. Wayne told them that it didn’t contain a weapon but rather three empty pistol clips, and some other gun parts. There was also an empty ammunition box. He said he’d ordered some of the items as gifts and intended to use others himself.

Apparently electing to forget that Wayne had refused to open the package in Trinka’s presence, Floyd Robinson was satisfied. He later described Wayne as “very open with me and not at all defensive.” This observation was meant to communicate that same old “Who could have known?” even though by that point several people could have known.

 

At around nine P.M. that evening, an anonymous male caller told Trinka that Wayne had a gun and was going to kill her, her family, and others.

Trinka took the threat seriously enough to call several school officials. She also immediately took her children to the home of a school provost. Her husband joined them there at around 9:30. They decided they would go and search Wayne’s room. If they found a weapon, or if he resisted, they would call the police. But since Dean Rodgers hadn’t let them open Wayne’s package, how would he react if they searched Wayne’s room? Better call the dean, they decided, and that’s what they were doing when they heard the first shots.

 

By the time the loud noises stopped, six people had been shot. Two of them were already dead. It had been less than twelve hours since Wayne had picked up the package that stimulated school officials to do everything except the obvious thing: call the police. Even the explicit warning call about Wayne’s intentions hadn’t convinced them to call the police.

It was ten more days before Dean Rodgers made any public explanation, and people were anxious to hear what he knew about the incident. Instead, he told them what he did not know: “I don’t know anything about weapons. I don’t know anything about guns.” I am sure Dean Rodgers knew guns are dangerous, and I am sure he knew there were people he could call about the matter.

 

Given that so little about Wayne’s feelings and perceptions was known to college officials, it would have been difficult to apply the JACA elements, but this is a perfect example of a case in which context alone is the dominant element of prediction: A student receives a package from a gun manufacturer; he refuses to open it or discuss its contents; he then opens it when he is alone; within hours, an anonymous caller warns that the student has a gun and plans to kill people. These things did not each happen independently; they all happened, and one could add another important factor: People felt intuitively that there was hazard.

When Wayne Lo appeared at his arraignment for murder, he wore a sweatshirt with the words SICK OF IT ALL across his chest. That speaks my feelings about the many, many cases in which denial was allowed to turn into negligence, and in which people in a position to know were the same ones later asking “Who could have known?”

▪ ▪ ▪

Having told several stories in which the warning signs were ignored and a tragedy occurred, I also want to acknowledge that the people involved—those who visited Edward Taylor to make him leave Jim Hicklin alone, those at Wayne Lo’s school, at Laura Black’s company, at USAir, even at the much-criticized U.S. Postal Service—were doing the best they could with the tools they had at the time. If they’d had the knowledge you now have, I believe they’d have made different choices, and thus, my observations are not about blame, but about education.

 

Park Dietz, the nation’s leading forensic psychiatrist and an expert on violence, has noted that the case histories are “littered with reports, letters, memoranda, and recollections that show people felt uncomfortable, threatened, intimidated, violated and unsafe because of the very person who later committed atrocious acts of violence.” One case Dietz studied tells a story of denial in its most undeniable form: A man killed one of his coworkers, served his prison time, was released, and was rehired by the same company whose employee he had murdered. While at the company the second time, he alienated people because he was always sullen and angry. He made threats that were known to supervisors and he stalked a female coworker. After he resigned (on the verge of being fired), he continued to stalk the woman and then he killed her.

Who could have known?

▪ ▪ ▪

Destructive acts against coworkers and organizations are not rare or isolated incidents. In an age of takeovers, mergers, and down-sizing, with people frequently laid off or fired, employee emotion is a force to be reckoned with. The loss of a job can be as traumatic as the loss of a loved one, but few fired employees receive a lot of condolence or support.

 

While the frequency of violent incidents has increased, most of the influencing factors have remained the same for a long while. Many American employers hire the wrong people and don’t bother to find out a thing about them. Then employees are supervised in ways likely to bring out their worst characteristics. Finally, the way they are fired influences events as much as the fact that they were hired. Few people would knowingly light the fuse on a bomb, but many employers inadvertently do exactly that. Many come to me afterwards, but only a few come wanting to learn about the topic before it’s a crisis.

I tell those clients about the most common type of problem employee, the one I call the Scriptwriter. He has several characteristics that are detectable early in his employment. One is his inflexibility; he is not receptive to suggestions because he takes them as affronts or criticisms of his way of doing things. Another characteristic is that he invests others with the worst possible motives and character. Entering a discussion about a discrepancy on his paycheck, for example, he says or thinks, “You’d better not try to screw me out of any money.” It is as if he expects people to slight him or harm him.

 

The Scriptwriter is the type of person who asks you a question, answers it himself, then walks away angry at what you said. In this regard, he writes the scriptfor his interaction with coworkers and management. In his script, he is a reasonable and good worker who must be constantly on guard against the ambushes of coworkers and supervisors. The things that go wrong are never his fault, and even accidental, unintended events are the work of others who will try to blame him. People are out to get him, period. And the company does nothing about it and doesn’t appreciate his contribution.

When you try to manage or reason with such a person, you find that he is not reacting to what you say but rather to what he expects you to say; he is reacting to his script. His is a personality that is self-defeating. The old “jack joke” demonstrates this dynamic at work.

A man driving along a remote stretch of highway gets a flat tire. Preparing to put on the spare, he realizes he does not have a jack to raise the car. Far in the distance, he sees the lights of some small farmhouses and begins the long walk to borrow a jack. It is getting dark, and as he walks along, he worries that the people will be reluctant to help him.

“They’ll probably refuse to even answer the door, or worse still, pretend they’re not home,” he thinks. “I’ll have to walk another mile to the next house, and they’ll say they don’t want to open the door and that they don’t have a jack anyway. When I finally get somebody to talk to me, they’ll want me to convince them I’m not some criminal, and if they agree to help me, which is doubtful, they’ll want to keep my wallet so I don’t run off with their stupid jack. What’s wrong with these people? Are they so untrusting that they can’t even help a fellow citizen? Would they have me freeze to death out here?”

By this point he has reached the first house. Having worked himself into a virtual state of rage, he bangs loudly on the door, thinking to himself, “They better not try to pretend there’s nobody home, because I can hear the TV.”

After a few seconds, a pleasant woman opens the door wide and asks with a smile, “Can I help you?”

He yells back at her, “I don’t want your help and I wouldn’t take your lousy jack if you gift-wrapped it for me!”

The Scriptwriter gives no credit when people are helpful, and this causes alienation from coworkers. His script actually begins to come true, and people treat him as he expects them to. By the time a given employer encounters him, he has likely been through these problems at other jobs and in other relationships.

 

The Scriptwriter issues warnings: “You’d better not try to blame me for what happened,” or “I’d better get that promotion.” Even when he gets his way, he believes it’s only because he forced the company to give it to him. He still thinks management was trying to get out of promoting him, but couldn’t.

When I review such an employee’s personnel file, it’s amazing how many serious performance or insubordination incidents are documented. Many are the kinds of things that companies could terminate for. He has made threats, he has bullied, he has intimidated. Sometimes the employee has even performed sabotage or already been violent at work, and yet he wasn’t fired because everybody was afraid to fire him. Managers have generally shifted him around from department to department, or put him on a late shift, or done whatever it takes to make him somebody else’s problem. Nobody wanted to sit down, look him in the eye, and fire him, because they knew he would react badly.

 

Since this dynamic feeds on itself and gets worse, and because the longer he is there, the more he feels entitled to be there, the key is to get rid of a Scriptwriter early. (I am not going into the quagmire of legally acceptable reasons for termination, but rather addressing those cases in which there is cause to fire someone and the decision to fire has been made.) When you first have cause to terminate this person, it should be done. Be sure, however, that the cause is sufficient and that your determination is unshakable, because if you try to fire him and fail, you are setting the stage for the TIME syndrome, which is the introduction of threats, intimidations, manipulations, and escalation.

Manipulations are statements intended to influence outcome without resorting to threat. Escalations are actions intended to cause fear, upset, or anxiety, such as showing up somewhere uninvited, sending something alarming, damaging something, or acting sinister.

 

When dealing with a difficult and violently inclined employee, it is important to understand that TIME is on his side unless you act quickly. Management may correctly intuit that he will not go quietly, but the sooner in the process he is fired, the easier it will be. If you believe it will be hard to fire him now, you can be certain it will be even harder later.

The Scriptwriter is often someone who has successfully used manipulations or intimidations in the past. His employer has, in effect, trained him that these strategies work and for this reason, he expects them to work again. When management does finally take the bold step of firing him, they are faced with a person who is shocked and who feels he is being treated unfairly. He may be partly right about the unfairness, because compared to all the things he has done that he didn’t get fired for, the cited reason may appear petty. He is angry, threatening, and cannot be appeased.

 

When manipulations that have worked for him in the past appear not to work now, he escalates them. At this point, management must consider all the harms this person could do to the company or its personnel. When they saw this side of him before, they always retreated. This time, they’ve stood their ground, and he has upped the ante by saying or doing things that make clear the obvious: They should have fired him long ago.

▪ ▪ ▪

Before I provide some PINs that are a call for further scrutiny in the workplace, I want to explain that I generally avoid the use of checklists because they mislead people into believing that there are shortcuts for high-stakes predictions. I have waited until this point in the book, when you are familiar with predictive resources and philosophies, before providing a list of behaviors. In less prepared hands, it could be misused. In yours, it will inform intuition.

1) Inflexibility

The employee resists change, is rigid, and unwilling to discuss ideas contrary to his own.

2) Weapons

He has obtained a weapon within the last ninety days, or he has a weapons collection, or he makes jokes or frequent comments about weapons, or he discusses weapons as instruments of power or revenge.

3) SAD

He is sullen, angry or depressed. Chronic anger is an important predictor of more than just violence. People who experience strong feelings of anger are at increased risk of heart attack (in fact, anger supersedes even such risk factors as smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol). Such people place others at risk and are at risk themselves. Accordingly, chronic anger should never be ignored. Signs of depression include changes in weight, irritability, suicidal thoughts and references, hopelessness, sadness, and loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities.

4) Hopelessness

He has made statements like “What’s the use?” “Nothing ever changes anyway;” “I’ve got no future.” He makes suicidal references or threats, or he makes or describes plans consistent with committing suicide (gets his affairs in order, sells off possessions, etc.). Pessimism is an important predictor of problems (just as optimism is an important predictor of success).

5) Identification

He identifies with or even praises other perpetrators of workplace violence. He refers to, jokes about, or is fascinated with news stories about major acts of violence. He is attracted to violent films, magazines like Soldier of Fortune, violent books, or gruesome news events.

6) Coworker fear

Coworkers are afraid of or apprehensive about him (whether or not they can articulate their reasons). This PIN seeks to capture the intuition of coworkers.

7) TIME

He has used threats, intimidations, manipulations, or escalations toward management or coworkers.

8) Paranoia

He feels others are “out to get” him, that unconnected events are related, that others conspire against him.

9) Criticism

He reacts adversely to criticism, shows suspicion of those who criticize him, and refuses to consider the merits of any critical observations about his performance or behavior.

10) Blame

He blames others for the results of his own actions; refuses to accept responsibility.

11) Crusades

He has undertaken or attached himself to crusades or missions at work. (This is particularly significant if he has waged what he might characterize as a “one-man war”).

12) Unreasonable Expectations

He expects elevation, long-term retention, an apology, being named “the winner” in some dispute, or being found “right.”

13) Grievance

He has a grievance pending or he has a history of filing unreasonable grievances.

14) Police encounters

He has had recent police encounters (including arrests) or he has a history that includes assaultive or behavioral offenses.

15) Media

There have recently been news stories about workplace violence or other major acts of violence. Press reports on these subjects often stimulate others who identify with the perpetrators and the attention they got for their acts. Like public-figure attacks, major incidents of workplace violence tend to come in clusters, with perpetrators often referring to those who preceded them in the news.

16) Focus

He has monitored the behavior, activities, performance, or comings and goings of other employees, though it is not his job to do so; he has maintained a file or dossier on another employee or he has recently stalked someone in or out of the workplace. (Since nearly half of all stalkers show up where their victims work, companies are wise to learn about this dynamic.)

17) Contact

If he was fired, he has instigated and maintained contact with current employees; he refuses to let go and appears more focused on the job he just lost than finding other employment.

 

While no single PIN can carry a prediction, and not all serious cases will contain the entire list, these are some warning signs to be alert to. Most of us know or have known people who have a few of these characteristics, but if you work with someone who has many, that is a matter for further attention.

 

When managers and supervisors and coworkers know these warning signs, they are far more likely to detect a serious situation before it becomes a critical situation. Park Dietz brought his brilliant thinking to a multi-year study of workplace violence incidents. After that, he and I produced and wrote a video training series used by many corporations and government agencies (see appendix 4). The comment we heard back most frequently from organizations using the program was that spotting these employees early was far easier than they expected. They also said that the most common resolution of these situations was counseling problem employees, not firing them. Counseling was possible because they recognized early the fact that a given employee needed help. After studying every major incident of multiple shooting in the workplace, Dr. Dietz concluded:

If a company is going to be able to respond to the kinds of things that the employees felt were really predictive, they have to learn about them. It takes time to encourage employees to tell supervisors when someone makes them feel uncomfortable or apprehensive. It takes planning. But when the call comes that someone is shooting in Building 16, it’s too late to do that planning.

His study also confirmed my beliefs about the relationship between media reporting and workplace violence:

It is a pattern that has increased in frequency and is so dependent on media that we can anticipate after each nationally publicized story there will be several more in the weeks that follow. The reason for that is the people who commit these acts are searching for solutions to their dilemmas. When they see a news account of someone doing the things they feel like doing, who seems like them, they identify with such people, and this is part of what causes them to move from inaction to action.

Many situations that evolved into violence had been brewing for a long time, and senior executives had no idea what was going on. Why? Because nobody wanted to report it to a supervisor. Why? Because someone might say, “Hey, can’t you handle your own people? Don’t you know how to deal with these things?”

I had a meeting a couple of years ago with a client who is the CEO of a large national company. During a discussion about restaurants owned by the company, I said, “You must have had plenty of circumstances where female employees had to deal with unwanted pursuit or stalking.” He replied, “I heard about one of those cases, but it really hasn’t been a serious problem for us.” A couple of hours later, I asked the Human resources director and he said, “Oh, sure, we’ve had about six or seven of those cases in the last year; they can sometimes be a problem.” Then he called the executive in charge of the restaurant division, who said, “We probably have two of those a month. I can think of about 20 we’ve had in recent years. It’s a very serious problem.”

If managers never get an opportunity to comment on or to influence a situation that might be relevant to safety, then critical decisions are left in the hands of people who are only making them because they think their bosses want them to or because they are afraid to tell anybody they can’t. Companies can stimulate reporting by communicating that they want to know and by welcoming information even when it is bad news. In some companies, if a manager makes a prediction that an employee’s alarming or disturbing behavior might escalate, and he brings this to his seniors, he runs the risk of being perceived as wrong for overreacting and wrong for not being able to handle the matter himself. Most unfairly, he may be perceived as wrong every day that nothing happens. I propose that large organizations redefine the word wrong in this context to include just three criteria. A manager is wrong only if he or she:

1. Doesn’t consider safety first

2. doesn’t ask the right questions

3. doesn’t communicate concerns clearly and early

I am fortunate to work with some forward-thinking companies that tell their managers, in effect, “We do not expect you to handle these behavioral-sciences issues. We do not expect you to know about how to manage people that are alarming or volatile. If you can manage 95% of the people you are dealing with, that’s an accomplishment. The 5 percent that depart from normal behavior—those that intimidate, threaten, or frighten—they should be reported to us.”

▪ ▪ ▪

Difficult terminations and situations involving threatening employees are similar to other volatile social situations. These include divorce, disputes with neighbors, disputes with financial institutions, acrimonious lawsuits, and dissolving partnerships. What they all have in common is that the interests of one party are in direct conflict with the interests of another party. Accordingly, resolutions that are completely satisfactory to all parties are rare.

 

To complicate matters, the difficult employee often has similar problems away from work as well. The good things in his life are like dominos that have started to topple: Confidence has toppled into performance, which topples into identity, which knocks over self-esteem. The loss of his job may knock over the few remaining dominos, but the one that employers must be careful not to topple is the dignity domino, because when that falls, violence is most likely. Consider JACA:

Justification: The employee can feel justified in using violence when the employer has taken everythingaway.

 

Alternatives: He may perceive fewer and fewer alternatives to violence, particularly if he has exhausted all appeals processes.

Consequences: His evaluation of the consequences of violence changes as he sinks lower. If he feels angry enough, particularly if he feels humiliated, the consequences of violence may become favorable.

 

Ability: Often, angry current or former employees overestimate their ability to deliver violence. This is dangerous because they are more likely to try grandiose attacks intended to “kill everyone,” or to “blow up everything.” Though they rarely succeed at quite the level they envision, they still hurt plenty of people.

▪ ▪ ▪

What is it that employers who have had the worst outcomes did, or failed to do?

 

Of course hiring is where it starts. The hiring officer has made a prediction that the candidate will meet the needs of the company and will be a well-adjusted, capable, and productive employee. We know predictions are better with more information, so investigating candidates’ backgrounds is key. I don’t mean that background checks can be expected to reliably screen out employees who will later act violently, because violence is a process that evolves over time; it is not a condition or a state. But effective background checks do give an employer the opportunity to learn important information about a candidate the easy way.

I testified in a case involving a security firm called MacGuard, which employed a man named Rodney Garmanian. They gave him the uniform he used to lure an 18-year-old girl named Teak Dyer into his car. They gave him the car he used to drive her away. They gave him the keys to the locked building where he took her, the handcuffs he used to restrain her, the billy club he struck her with, and the gun he murdered her with. MacGuard had failed to conduct any pre-employment background check or even to review Garmanian’s application. Had they taken those few minutes, they would have learned that he failed to fill out most of the form, and what he did fill out was not favorable. He had listed his term in the military as being three months. That kind of thing is an obvious area for inquiry: “Why were you in the military for only three months, Mr. Garmanian? Most people are in the military longer.” He had listed his reason for leaving on two of the former jobs as “fired,” yet MacGuard didn’t ask him anything about that.

 

Perhaps the most chilling thing about this case is what I learned simply by calling two of his former employers. The first told me, “Oh, yes, I remember Rodney Garmanian. He once tried to have sex with a girl on the second floor when the building was closed.” The second person said, “Oh, yes, I remember Rodney Garmanian. He drew sexually solicitous drawings and put them in the ladies’ room.” The murder Garmanian ultimately committed occurred in the ladies’ room on the second floor of a closed building. For twenty-five cents I had learned information that, had Garmanian’s employers bothered to get it, could have saved Teak Dyer’s life. Checking references and checking with former employers is an absolutely critical duty of every employer.

Another case I testified in involved an employee who intentionally drove his truck at high speed through a line of picketers; several people were injured, and one was brain damaged. Here again, there was an ineffective pre-employment inquiry. References were not called, information offered on the application was not confirmed. In fact, just on the face of it, the application demonstrated a lack of full disclosure and a lack of honesty. For example, telephone numbers listed under references also appeared under relatives, and telephone numbers that when dialed went to people’s homes were offered as being companies. Checking such things can tell you without much effort that the applicant is not honest. At a minimum, it tells you that there are some additional issues to be explored with him.

 

The failure to take the obvious step of calling references is an epidemic in America, and I have little patience for managers who complain about employees they didn’t care enough to assess before hiring. A common excuse for this failure is that the references will say only good things since the candidate has prepared them for the call. In fact, there is a tremendous amount of information to be gained from references in terms of confirming facts on the application. “Did you know him when he worked for such and such a firm? When did he work for such and such a firm? Do you know roughly what salary he was making? Do you know what school he went to? You said you went to school with him.” I suggest that questions asked of those listed as references be guided by information on the application.

The most important thing references can give you are other references. We call these “developed sources.” These are people who know the applicant but whom he did not list as references. Accordingly, they are not prepared for your inquiry and will be more likely to provide valuable information. You get the names of developed sources by asking the references the applicant listed for the names of other people who know him.

The interview with the applicant is another opportunity to gain valuable background information. This may seem obvious, but many employers don’t use this best resource. The first issue to explore is an applicant’s truthfulness during the pre-employment process. When people lie on applications, they rarely recall exactly how they lied, so I suggest holding the application in your hand and asking questions right off it as you interview a candidate. The most common lie is about the duration of previous jobs. Eight months is reported as a year, eighteen months as two years, etc.

During pre-employment interviews (which can be videotaped), there are a series of questions we suggest asking. Though not an exhaustive list, here are some examples:

“Describe the best boss you ever had,” and “Describe the worst boss you ever had.”

This is a powerful inquiry that can reveal important attitudes about managers and management. If the applicant speaks for just a moment about his best boss, but can wax on enthusiastically about the worst bosses, this is telling. Does he use expressions like “personality conflict” to explain why things did not work out with previous employers? Does he ridicule former bosses? Does he take any responsibility for his part?

“Tell me about a failure in your life and tell me why it occurred.”

Does the applicant say he cannot think of one? If he can describe something he perceives as a failure, does he take responsibility for it or does he blame others (e.g., “I never graduated high school because those damned teachers didn’t know how to motivate me”)?

“What are some of the things your last employer could have done to be more successful?

Does the applicant offer a long list of items and appear to feel he could have run things better than management did? Are his comments constructive or angry? There is a follow-up:

“Did you ever tell your previous employer any of your thoughts on ways they could improve?”

If he says “Yes, but they never listened to anyone,” or “Yeah, but they just said ‘Mind your own business,’” this may tell more about the style of his approach than about managers at his last job. Most employers react well to suggestions that are offered in a constructive way, regardless of whether or not they follow them. Another unfavorable response is, “What’s the use of making suggestions? Nothing ever changes anyway.” Some applicants will accuse former employers of stealing their ideas. Others will tell war stories about efforts to get a former employer to follow suggestions. If so, ask if this was a one-man undertaking or in concert with his coworkers. Sometimes an applicant will say his coworkers “didn’t have the guts to confront management like I did.”

“What are some of the things your last employer could have done to keep you?”

Some applicants will give a reasonable answer (slightly more pay, better schedule, etc.), but others will provide a list of demands that demonstrate unreasonable expectations (e.g., “They could have doubled my salary, promoted me to vice president, and given me Fridays off”).

“How do you go about solving problems at work?”

Good answers are that he consults with others, weighs all points of view, discusses them with involved parties, etc. Unfavorable answers contain a theme of confrontation (e.g., “I tell the source of the problem he’d better straighten up,” or “I go right to the man in charge and lay it on the line”). Another bad answer is that he does nothing to resolve problems, saying, “Nothing ever changes anyway.”

“Describe a problem you had in your life where someone else’s help was very important to you.”

Is he able to recall such a situation? If so, does he give credit or express appreciation about the help?

“Who is your best friend and how would you describe your friendship?”

Believe it or not, there are plenty of people who cannot come up with a single name in response to this question. If they give a name that was not listed as a reference, ask why. Then ask if you can call that friend as a reference.

▪ ▪ ▪

Some statements in an interview that appear to be favorable may actually mask characteristics that are unfavorable. “I am always on time,” or “I am very, very organized” are sometimes offered by applicants who will later be revealed as inflexible and territorial. Territorialism (my desk, my area, my assignment) is not necessarily an attribute. “If I say I’ll give you eight hours, you can be sure that’s what you’ll get, not a minute less” might be said by an applicant who will also hold you to his expectations, treating understandings as commitments, and unforeseen changes as unfairnesses.

 

We can all rationalize anything, and when an employer is too anxious to fill a position, intuition is ignored. As I mentioned earlier about hiring baby-sitters, the goal should be to disqualify poor applicants rather than qualify good applicants. Those who are good will qualify themselves.

▪ ▪ ▪

Another characteristic frequently seen in cases that ended badly is that the employee was not supervised appropriately.

 

The concept of appropriate supervision can be stated in six words: praise for performance—correction for errors. It is as important to catch employees doing something right—and tell them—as it is to catch them doing something wrong, but above all, non-compliance must not be ignored. With the problem employee, supervisors have often given up on correcting him. Many of the problems that arise could have been avoided by treating this employee appropriately at every step, but people treated him differently because it was easier than resolving the issues.

This type of employee is very sensitive and perceptive about being “handled,” particularly if it’s because of a concern that he will act violently. If he perceives that employers consider him dangerous, it can actually increase the likelihood of his acting out, because he has little to lose when he is already thought of as violent.

▪ ▪ ▪

In addition to hiring the wrong people, and supervising them badly, employers who had the worst outcomes were also slow to fire people they knew had to go.

 

A problem employee is easier to terminate before he makes a substantial emotional investment in the job, before the minor issues become causes, before disappointments become disgruntlements. The longer that emotional investment is made, the stronger it becomes, and the more likely it is that the termination will be difficult.

Often employers are reluctant to fire someone who concerns them because they really don’t know the best way to do it. Below, I list some strategies for difficult terminations, but many are also applicable to terminating other emotionally invested relationships, such as those involving unwanted suitors, business partners, and former spouses. Individual circumstances will always call for customized responses, but these philosophies will usually apply.

PROTECT THE DIGNITY DOMINO

Prop it up with courtesy and understanding. Never embarrass an employee. Keep secret from him any concerns you have about serious harms he might commit. Think the worst if the indicators are there, but treat the terminated employee as if he were what you hope him to be. Treat him as if he is reasonable, as if you are not afraid of how he might react. Terminate his employment in a manner that demonstrates that you expect him to accept the news maturely and appropriately. This does not mean ignore the hazard. Just the opposite is wise: Prepare for the worst, but not in ways detectable to the terminated employee. Do not lead him to believe that you are anticipating threats or hazard. If you do, you may be writing a script for him to follow. Further, you are letting him know your vulnerabilities.

MAKE THE TERMINATION COMPLETE

Often, employers are tempted to offer a gradual separation, thinking it will lessen the blow to the terminated employee. Though it may appear that this approach extends the term of employment, it really extends the firing, and the embarrassment and anxiety along with it. It is analogous to hooking someone up to life-support systems when he has no quality of life and no chance for survival. Though some may believe this extends the process of life, it actually extends the process of death.

DO NOT NEGOTIATE

This could be called the golden rule, and it applies to getting out of any kind of relationship with people who refuse to let go. Once the termination decision has been made, your meeting with the employee is to inform him of your decision, period. Other issues may come up, but do not negotiate, no matter how much he wants to. This is not a discussion of how to improve things, correct things, change the past, find blame, or start over. Revisiting the issues and contentions of his history with the company will only raise sore points and raise emotion. He cannot likely be convinced that terminating him is a good idea—it isn’t in his nature to recognize that, no matter what the evidence, so keep the presentation brief. I suggest to clients that they actually write a script of the few points they want to make in informing the employee of the decision. I also suggest they come up with what my office calls call a “boomerang line,” a sentence that can be repeated each time he tries to derail the conversation: “Bill, if you had made this decision instead of us, we’d respect it,” or “This is not the time to rehash the past; we have to work on the future.”

KEEP THE DISCUSSION FUTURE BASED

Avoid rehashing the past. Establish some issues about the future to be resolved during the meeting. For example, “What would you like us to tell callers about where to reach you?” “Would you like us to forward mail or advise the sender of your new address?” “How can we best describe your job here to future employers who may contact us?” Make the employee feel that his input has bearing. Uncertainty about what a former employer will tell callers causes high anxiety, so address it directly and show that it is resolvable. This way it is not left simmering beneath the surface. These points may seem minor, but they direct focus to the future, to his starting over again rather than dwelling on the past.

BE DIRECT

Instead of simply informing an employee that the decision to fire him has been made, some employers sidle up to the issue so delicately that the person doesn’t fully realize he has just been fired. After listening, he might say he understands he has to improve his performance, to which the employer responds, “No, you don’t understand; we’re firing you.” This can make the fired employee feel foolish on top of all the other feelings that go with being fired. Trying to be delicate often results in being vague. There is a joke which that seem at first to endorse delivering bad news in a roundabout way, but it shows that directness actually makes more sense:

A woman calls the friend who is house-sitting for her and asks how things are going. “Well, your cat fell off the roof and died,” the friend reports. “My God,” the woman replies. “How could you tell me like that? You should have said, ‘Fluffy was playing on the roof having a wonderful time, and she began to slip. She regained her footing and seemed okay, but then she slipped again and fell off the roof. She was rushed to the vet, and the injuries seemed serious, but then Fluffy rallied, and everyone thought she’d make it, but… well… finally she passed away.’ That’s how you should have told me.”

The house-sitter apologizes for being so unfeeling. A week later the woman calls again to see how things are going. The house-sitter hesitates and then says, “Well, your mother was playing on the roof…”

People benefit most from hearing bad news forthrightly.

The whole theme of the termination meeting should be that you are confident he will succeed in the future, find work he will enjoy, and do well. (You may actually feel he has emotional problems, is self-defeating, and will always fail, but there is nothing to be gained from letting these messages surface.) The tone of the meeting should be matter-of-fact, not solemn and depressing: “These changes are part of professional life that we all experience at one time or another. I’ve been through it myself. We know you’ll do well and that this needn’t be a setback for you.”

TO THE DEGREE POSSIBLE, CITE GENERAL RATHER THAN SPECIFIC ISSUES

Many employers want to justify to the terminated employee why they are taking this action, as if they could possibly convince him that his being fired is a good idea. Others use the termination meeting for more efforts to correct the employee’s attitude or improve him, turning the termination meeting into a lecture. Many employers give more frank and constructive criticism at the moment of firing someone than they ever gave that employee while he was employed. Forget about that—it’s too late. A wiser course is to describe the decision in general terms, saying it is best for all parties. Say employment is a two-way street and the present situation isn’t serving either side. Say he is obviously a capable person but this job is not providing the best environment for him to excel in. Do not get dragged into a discussion about who will replace him. Use a boomerang line or say those decisions haven’t been made.

REMEMBER THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE

In consideration of the security and safety of those handling the firing, the employee not be aware of the termination meeting ahead of time. Believe it or not, many employees are summoned to their firing meeting with the words “They’re going to fire you.”

TIME IT RIGHT

A firing should take place without notice, at the end of the day, while other employees are departing. This way, when the meeting is over, the fired employee cannot immediately seek out those he feels are responsible. Further, he will then be going home at the same time as usual as opposed to finding himself home on a weekday morning, for example. I suggest firing at the end of the work week. If fired on a Friday, he has the weekend off as usual so he doesn’t feel the impact of having no place to go the next morning. Unlike on a weekday, he will not awaken with the knowledge that his former coworkers are at the job (and possibly discussing him). He won’t have the experience of everything being different from usual, different shows on TV, familiar people not at home, etc. Though some believe that firing on a weekday is advisable, I find it makes possible targets of aggression available to him at work while he is still at a point of high emotion.

CHOOSE YOUR SETTING

A firing should take place in a room out of the view of other employees. It should not be in the office of the person doing the firing, because then there’s no way to end the meeting if the terminated employee wants to keep talking. The person doing the firing needs to have the ability to stand up and leave if it is no longer productive to stay. One experienced executive I know avoids using his office because he feels that a person will always vividly remember where he was fired and might return there if angry.

CHOOSE YOUR CAST

Who should be present? I suggest that a higher level manager than the employee usually worked with should make the termination presentation. It should be someone distant from the day-to-day controversies that surrounded the terminated employee. It should be someone who is calm and can retain that demeanor in the face of anger or even threats. When workable, a second participant can be someone in management the fired employee is known to admire, or someone with whom he has a good relationship. The reason for this second person is that the employee will act his best self in front of someone he feels likes or respects him.

Who should not be present? Armed security guards, local police, or Big Ed from the loading dock should not be part of the termination meeting. Though some employers believe that this presence puts them in a position of strength, it does exactly the opposite. It sets all your vulnerabilities on the table for the potentially dangerous employee to exploit. No equal coworker or direct supervisor should be present either. They increase the likelihood of embarrassment, along with the likelihood of getting into a heated discussion about the past. The manager running the termination meeting shows his strength by not appearing to need any reinforcements.

▪ ▪ ▪

Many employers view firing as something done from a position of power, but it is not so. There was a day when Richard Farley was the most powerful man at ESL. There was a day when David Burke was the most powerful man at USAir. They had anger and righteous indignation, and as Emerson said, “A good indignation brings out all one’s powers.” Righteous indignation can be the engine for behaviors that an employee might never have even considered before. Remember, this man is not a monster. He is someone they hired who might have worked at a company for years. But now he is in shock. This firing has shaken his world. Either he didn’t expect it or it confirms his view of the world because he always expected it. In any case, it is an unwelcome and belittling change that is being forced on him.

 

He could stand not being liked in the company, but being ignored, rejected, erased—that is quite a different matter. The firing is much bigger to him because of what he links to it: loss of status, loss of income, loss of security, loss of purpose, loss of identity and above all loss in a fight. His opponents have won and he has lost.

Because of all this, an important power shift takes place at the instant of firing. Everything changes as a wide range of options and alternatives opens up to the fired employee that he could never have applied when he was trying to keep his job. The primary leverage of employers is the ability to fire, but once they do it, once that power is exercised, their one shot has been fired and the gun is empty. After that, the power is in the hands of the employee. Many companies have learned that the cost of underestimating this power is far greater than the cost of respecting it.

 

Given the industriousness of lawyers and the prevalence of wrongful termination suits, some companies have been more concerned about litigation than hazard. When a fired employee threatens a lawsuit, he may get more attention than for other threats, but this is ironic, because in the context of the kind of employee we are discussing here, the threatening of a lawsuit is actually good news. As long as he is focused on a lawsuit, he sees alternatives to violence. The problem with lawsuits comes not when they start, but when they end. We know that eventually, particularly when claims are unreasonable or outrageous, the employee will lose the legal battle. Then the company may have to face that person’s anger again. When employers avoid provoking or engaging a fired employee, however, time itself will heal most wounds, hopefully including those to his dignity and identity.

What is the best way to respond to threats in a termination meeting? In chapter 7, I provided many concepts about threats that apply to this question. Remember that the value of threats is determined by our reaction. Accordingly, if an employee makes threats when he is fired, the best theme for the reaction is “I understand you are upset, but the things you are talking about are not your style. I know you are far too reasonable and have too good a future to even consider such things.” This reaction is not intended to convince the threatener that he isn’t angry but rather to convince him that you are not afraid.

It is also important to let the threatener know that he has not embarked on a course from which he cannot retreat. A good theme is “We all say things when we react emotionally; I’ve done it myself. Let’s just forget it. I know you’ll feel different tomorrow.”

Even in the cases in which the threats are determined to be serious (and thus call for interventions or extensive preparations), we advise clients never to show the threatener a high appraisal of his words and never to show fear. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take precautions. In fact, when clients are firing difficult employees, we guide them through many precautions, including monitoring the meeting by video from nearby rooms, having security intervention teams at the ready, installation of emergency call buttons, and improved access-control procedures after the firing.

 

All termination meetings, whether they go well or poorly, provide valuable insights into how the fired employee is going to behave later. As important, this meeting also shows the fired employee how management will react to his behavior. Immediately after a termination meeting, the person who conducted the firing should make a report of the attitude, behavior, responses and statements of the fired employee. The information can then be assessed by professionals whose opinions can help inform decisions about security and other relevant matters.

Among the issues to be decided after a difficult termination is whether anyone needs to be notified about possible risk. The failure to warn people who might be the targets of violence can be negligent, as can be the failure to take back access credentials, monitor an angry employee’s departure from the building, notify security personnel and receptionists, or take any other steps appropriate when someone is believed to be dangerous to others.

 

The worst possible reaction to a threat is a counter-threat. When threats work for the employee, it’s because, having little to lose, he might actually do a reckless thing—and management knows that. Conversely, the employee intuitively knows that management will not do a reckless thing. Also, counter-threats make things worse. Think of violence as interactional. The way you respond to a threat might up the ante and turn this situation into a contest of threats, escalations, and counter-threats. It is a contest employers rarely win, for they have far more at risk than the terminated employee and far more ways to lose. Examples of counter-threats include management’s saying, “Oh, yeah? Well I’ll have the cops on you the minute you try it!” Counter-threats engage the threatener and put you on his playing field. You want exactly the opposite, which is to disengage and to play by your rules.

Having said this, there is also a time to let go of rules altogether. My office consulted on a case in which our client, a mid-sized city, put rules above safety. An employee who was retiring on a mental disability rejected the $11,000 the city offered because it didn’t include a $400 reimbursement he felt entitled to. The rules prohibited reimbursement for expenditures that were not approved ahead of time, so the city refused to pay it. One afternoon the ex-employee arrived without an appointment and demanded to see the administrator who had made that decision. The two argued, but the administrator held firm to the rules. The employee stood up and said, “Let me see if I can put this another way.” He then placed two .38 caliber bullets on the administrator’s desk and left.

 

Our office was asked to assess the situation. We learned that this employee had shown a handgun to his therapist and commented on the principle of the financial dispute: “Right is right, and right always wins.” In our report, we suggested that the city pay the $400, since winning that point had become a matter of pride and identity to the former employee. Acceding to people’s demands isn’t always possible or practical, but in this case the entire consequence was the $400.

By the city’s reaction to our suggestion, you would think we had asked them to give up their first-born sons. The administrator told me, “We have rules, and if we buckle under to everybody who makes a demand, those rules will be meaningless.” He could have benefited from the wisdom of Oliver Wendell Holmes: “The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”

Like the threatener, this administrator was committed to the principle of the matter. In such cases, we say both parties are “in the ring,” meaning they are willing or even anxious to stay in the fight. I said, “We aren’t suggesting that you give four hundred dollars to everyone who asks for it, but rather that you give four hundred dollars just to the desperate, emotionally disturbed ex-employees who, after showing a gun to their therapists, plop bullets down on your desk to make a point. I don’t expect the city will be paying out on that policy too often.” But the administrator was clinging to some higher ideal than just the money—in fact, he was spending more than $400 just arguing his opinion with me. After he finished his second, more spirited lecture on the sanctity of rules, I wanted to bring us back to the high-stakes context: “I have a suggestion: Since rules are so powerful, let’s make a new rule that says employees cannot shoot administrators. Won’t that solve the problem?”

He actually appeared to be thinking over my rhetorical suggestion when I asked, “Which rule would you rather see broken?” Wars have been fought over easier issues, but the administrator finally agreed to the $400 payment, the ex-employee moved to Arizona, and the city survived its brief affair with flexibility. Such resolutions may seem obvious, but when participants are in the ring, it’s hard for them to see past their fists.

▪ ▪ ▪

Not a week passes without an organization’s seeking my corporations and agencies that have dedicated the time and resources to addressing these hazards before they occur have, in effect, elected to learn lessons second-hand rather than have their employees learn them first hand.

 

No matter how well managers manage, however, there may still be some violence in the workplace that doesn’t reveal itself early. That’s because it starts closer to home.







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