A Disturbance in the Workforce

A Disturbance in the Workforce

In November 2009, Jason Rodriguez, a former employee of an engineering firm in Orlando, Florida, entered the company’s offices and opened fire with a handgun, killing one person and wounding five others. Rodriguez had been fired from Reynolds, Smith and Hills less than 2 years earlier and told police that he thought the firm was hindering his efforts to collect unemployment benefits. “They left me to rot,” he told a reporter who asked him about his motive.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the incidence of workplace violence has actually been trending down over the past few years, in part because employers have paid more attention to the problem and taken successful preventive measures. More and more companies, for example, have set up employee assistance programs (EAPs) to help workers deal with various sources of stress. However, EAP providers report that, in the current climate of economic uncertainty, they’re being asked to deal with a different set of problems than those they’ve typically handled in the past.

In particular, financial problems have replaced emotional problems as employees’ primary area of concern, and with unemployment totals remaining high in some industries and in some parts of the country, American workers appear to be more worried about the future than about such conventional stressors as pressing deadlines and demanding bosses. Today, says Sandra Naiman, a Denver-based career coach, “off- and on-the-job stresses feed into one another” to elevate stress levels all around, and workplace stress during the recent recession may reflect this unfamiliar convergence of stressors.

“Tough times,” he says, “will cause people to do crazy things.”

There are as yet no hard data to connect workplace violence with economic downturns, but many professionals and other experts in the field are convinced that the connection is real. ComPsych Corp., an EAP provider in Chicago, reports that calls are running 30 percent above normal. According to Rick Kronberg of Perspectives Ltd., another Chicago-based EAP provider, “with the layoffs and the general financial picture, we’re getting a lot of reaction … [from] people with a high degree of stress.” Adds Tim Horner, a managing director at Kroll Inc., a security consulting firm, “There are signs out there that something’s going on. It’s not unusual that somebody snaps.” Kenneth Springer, another security specialist whose job now includes keeping an eye on potentially dangerous ex-employees for their former employers, agrees: “Tough times,” he says, “will cause people to do crazy things.”

By the same token, says Laurence Miller, a forensic psychologist and author of From Difficult to Disturbed: Understanding and Managing Dysfunctional Employees, economic stress alone won’t turn someone into a killer, nor is the average coworker likely to turn violent without warning. “People shouldn’t be sitting around wondering if someone they’ve been working with for years who’s been a regular guy [with] no real problems is going to suddenly snap and go ballistic on them,” says Miller. “It’s usually somebody,” he warns, “that’s had a long streak of problems.” Unfortunately, that profile fits Jason Rodriguez, who’d been struggling for years with marital and mental-health problems, unemployment, debt, and smoldering anger. “He was a very, very angry man,” reports his former mother-in-law.

Think It Over

  1. Have you ever experienced a case of workplace violence?
  2. What role, if any, might the organization itself play in instigating workplace violence?
  3. Can the threat of workplace violence ever be completely eliminated? Why or why not?