Workplace Violence: Is The Recession Inspiring Worker Rage?

workplace violence recession neil prescott

It was perhaps the least appropriate time to make a threat to a co-worker using a "Batman" reference. But in late July, Neil Prescott's bosses at Pitney Bowes told him over the phone that he was being fired, he apparently was livid. "I'm a Joker and I'm gonna load my guns and blow everybody up," Prescott, 28, of Crofton, Md., allegedly said. He also purportedly told his boss that he'd like to see his "brain splatter all over the sidewalk."

The threats came only a few days after a gunman said to be imitating the "Joker," burst into a midnight showing of the latest "Batman" movie in Aurora, Colo., and shot 12 people to death and wounded 58. Understandably alarmed, Prescott's supervisors immediately called police. When officers arrived at Prescott's apartment, Prescott reportedly was wearing a shirt that read, "Guns don't kill people. I do." A subsequent search uncovered several thousand rounds of ammunition and about two dozen semi-automatic rifles and pistols in his apartment, which were legally obtained, according to CBS News.

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On Wednesday, Prescott was charged with a misdemeanor -- misuse of telephone facilities --apparently the most severe charge that he could face under Maryland law. Its penalty is up to three years in prison and a $500 fine.

America's Workplace Violence Problem

Prescott's case received publicity because of the "copycat" nature of the alleged crime. And although the alleged gunman in the Aurora killings, James Holmes, was a student not a worker, public concern about violence in the workplace has only increased in the wake of the Aurora massacre, motivating government authorities to issue warnings to citizens on what to do in the event of a workplace shooting. CBS News reported that the Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security run out of the mayor's office of Houston, Texas, has posted on YouTube entitled "Run, Hide and Fight." The public service announcement describes how to escape a workplace if a shooting is taking place, but if that's not possible, it advises workers to "act with aggression, improvise weapons ... and commit to taking the shooter down." The video has already been viewed more than 250,000 times.

Although violent crime has seen recent declines in the U.S., some experts see workplace violence as a growing problem. Indeed, in the same week that Prescott was arrested, there were two other incidents of workplace shootings or threatened violence.

Dr. Larry Barton, a leading expert in workplace violence, says such cases are on the rise. Dr. Barton, the president of the Bryn Mawr, Pa.-based American College, which offers master's programs in nonprofit risk and insurance management, teaches at the FBI Academy on subjects like identifying potentially violent individuals in the private sector. He also runs a private consultancy, counseling a roster of clients that includes 40 Fortune 500 companies, and says that for his clients, threats of violence in the workplace are up 28 percent this year alone.

The most recent official statistics are two years old and show the rate of workplace violence to be steady for the last two decades. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that 7.8 percent of working U.S. adults were threatened, bullied or harassed on the job in 2010. The average of two murders in the American workplace a day from worker-on-worker violence, and not accidents, has remained flat for roughly two decades, according to statistics provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, in the last 15 years, deaths resulting from workplace violence have ranked among the top four causes of occupational fatalities in American offices, according to Security magazine.

Barton sees an uptick in threats reported by his clients in the last year and blames the economic crisis and the toll it's taking on workers.

"Many of us who thought the [economic downturn] was going to be a short-term hiccup, and so that gave us temporary comfort," he says. "But it has become an ulcer, and with a lot more anxiety about cutbacks, people wondering, 'Am I next?,' you would think people would lie low and do their work. But that's not the case, it seems people become more provocative."

Violence in the workplace is not new. James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, is a leading researcher of the phenomenon of "going postal," a phrase which was coined after a series of 40 workplace shootings by United States Postal Service workers, starting in 1983. During those killings, the violence was largely chalked up to disgruntled workers who felt mired in a bureaucracy.

But some experts including Cheryl Paradis, a forensic psychologist at Marymount Manhattan College, believe that what's new is that violent workers today are triggered by losing their jobs -- and they're likely to take it out on co-workers. "They tend to be men, and they tend to have lost everything. When you feel you've lost everything, it's so much easier to blame the job or the boss."

Interestingly, while Holmes himself is not accused of a workplace attack, he apparently had a job loss of sorts as well -- pulling out of a Ph.D. program in which he was floundering just one month before the attack.

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According to authorities, Lillie Foots-Wilson and Latange Long had an altercation before Wilson shot Long to death. It could have been far worse had not Steven Strange, a co-worker, run to his truck, got his gun and directed it at Long. "I drew my .45 and said, 'You raise that gun you're dead.' She raised it up and handed it over to the plant manager," he told "I had to go back in there and stop and see what I could do to protect any of them that were alive."

At first, Strange was fired for "workplace violence," but a few hours later, the executives called him back to retract the decision; termination, they decided, wasn't appropriate. (He was, however, reportedly suspended for three days.)

For survivors of workplace violence, the trauma lingers. Dayna Klein survived a shooting six years ago in her Seattle office, but when she saw the news about the Aurora massacre, the memories flooded her. She says that she still has nightmares, according to a recent report by WCSH-TV in Portland, Ore.

Suspecting A Threat

So what do workers do if they think one their colleagues might pose a threat? "It's a misguided logic that HR is only for hiring," was how Fox answered the question, urging workers to take advantage of human resource departments when they're available and notify officers of a potentially dangerous employee.

"Larger employers tend to have fewer homicides because they have larger HR departments," Barton, of the American College, said via e-mail. "This is important because many would say, 'Well, any actuary would state that the more people you employ, the greater the risk.' " But the reality, says Barton, is that "identifying and mitigating cases actually has a higher likelihood in a larger company because they just have more capacity to intervene early. "

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Employers, for their part, seem to be getting the message. According to a study conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management, employers have maintained their commitments to employee assistance programs over the past four years even amid all the cutbacks in the recession. (EAPs typically offer free, short-term counseling services for workers.) Indeed, a steady 75 percent of employers offered EAPs from 2008 to 2011, but the rate ticked up to 78 percent this year, according to SHRM's 2012 Employee Benefits Report.

But for all workers, whether they work amid a robust human resources department, or in a three-person office, the challenge is the same: knowing when to speak out.

Barton says that American workers should err on the side of caution. "In our country, we tend to step back if we see someone punching a locker, or something like that" out of a misguided attempt to respect people's privacy, he says. "It's important to keep in mind: Safety always trumps privacy."

In Prescott's case, his superiors apparently made that very calculation. And the decision may have saved lives. Prescott has been hospitalized and is undergoing psychiatric evaluation. In speaking to the media about the incident, the police in Maryland were underscoring just how vital Prescott's capture was.

Prince George's County Police Chief Mark Magaw told CBS, "We can't measure what was prevented here, but what was going on over the last 36 hours was a significant incident in the county. And we think a violent episode was avoided."

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