CofC professor: Workplace violence rising as down economy lingers

CHARLESTON, SC - By Matt Horton bio | email

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - When the term "going postal" was first coined in the 1980s, it was fairly simple to understand: 40 percent of violent acts in the workplace were committed by those who were employed by their local post office.

However, a lot has changed since the 1980s.

"You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than you do being a victim of workplace violence," said Dr. Carrie Blair-Messal, College of Charleston School of Business professor. "However, incidents of lightning strikes haven't gone up with time, but workplace violence has."

According to Blair-Messal, that's a statement backed by the economy.

Unemployment is the worst it has been since the 1930's -- 12.6 percent in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those still working have likely suffered pay cuts or numerous furloughs in lieu of shrinking budgets. Add to that stress the increased demand from employers to work longer hours with fewer benefits or creative input to save a "bottom line" and some employees, says Blair-Messal, begin to feel as though lethal violence is their only way out.

"When an employee is fired, they feel as though they have been slighted," said Blair-Messal. "[The employee] feels as though it shouldn't have been them, that a decision was made against them unfairly... [Fired employees] now a days are taking it a lot more personally because they need their job to survive in this economy."

Blair-Messal says despite somewhat general logic for the motives behind workplace violence, those committing the acts are harder to track.

"In the U.S., most people committing crimes in day-to-day life are often male, a minority and in their early- to mid-20's," said Blair-Messal. "With workplace violence, we're still looking at males, but they're white, usually educated and over 38 years of age."

Blair-Messal says such a profile is directly related to those who are most often the first to be victim of pay cuts, demotions, or even lose their positions within companies -- middle-aged white men who often hold high-paying positions that if downsized, or cut, could save their company much-needed money.

"Often times, you have someone who doesn't have a criminal record, who has lead a relatively normal life, that becomes a mass murderer in 60 seconds," he said.

Blair-Messal is quick to point that not every fired employee is a risk of "going postal."

"There are many outlying factors that those who commit workplace violence have in common," said Blair-Messal.  "There is usually a substance abuse problem, a fascination with guns and, almost always, the person tends to be a loner."

Blair-Messal says lack of connection to friends or family members off-the-clock is a bad sign, whether the person is unemployed or a CEO.

"When an employee has a bad day, they're looking for a release, someone to vent to, to get advice from, " said Blair-Messal.  "When you live and only interact with yourself, you get more emotional and tend to act out."

Most who do act out, according to Blair-Messal, don't shock their co-workers when they do so.  Blair-Messal says employee threats against his or her co-worker are usually an indicator of things to come.

"Often times, survivors of these attacks say 'Yep, he definitely said he or she ought to do this, or ought to do this'.  There is this feeling of seeing the attack coming."

While Blair-Messal believes in respecting employee privacy and personal issues in the workplace, she says following instincts, no matter how "un-PC" they may seem, can save lives.

"Co-workers can't be afraid to step in.  If you feel like something is up, then chances are something is," said Blair-Messal.  "Inform people, talk to human resources, offer counseling or therapy… Don't let these things go by you because it makes you feel awkward in bringing attention to it."

©2010 WCSC. All rights reserved.