American Workplace Needs Humanizing

This month, a reportedly deranged man - back to work at the Connecticut State Lottery following a stress-related leave - went on a deadly rampage, killing four of his superiors before turning the gun on himself.

The details seemed all too familiar. The gunman was 35-year-old Matthew Beck, who had accused his employer of treating him badly. He'd complained that his supervisors were stalling on negotiations to pay him back wages and that he was not being assigned any work. Months earlier, he'd filed a grievance contending that he was being assigned jobs outside of his work classification and that he deserved a raise of $2 an hour. Just a few days before his rampage, he spoke angrily of suing the Lottery.

For the American worker, the past ten years haven't been completely kind. Although unemployment has dropped to below 5 percent, underemployment is increasingly the norm, with many middle-income, manufacturing jobs being replaced by lower-paying positions in the service industry. More and more workers have been forced to take temporary or part-time jobs without fringe benefits.

In response to cut-throat competition, some unhappy workers have simply given up on themselves. Others have sought legal remedies. But more and more, embittered, vengeful workers have settled matters outside of court - with fighting words and a loaded gun. To many casual observers, the problem of workplace violence is often equated with disgruntled postal workers. The term "going postal" has become a code word for workplace massacres, and there is even a new computer game, simply called "Postal," with the theme of going berserk in public places. As the Connecticut incident indicates, the problem of workplace violence extends well beyond the confines of local postal facilities.

Nationally, about four people are murdered every month at the hands of a co-worker or former co-worker. And for every incident of workplace homicide, thousands of workers are assaulted or threatened by an associate. Less conspicuous are the countless numbers of angry workers who seek to sabotage their company's bottom line by spreading ugly rumors to hurt sales or subverting the manufacturing process.

In response to rising levels of workplace violence, a wide range of books and pamphlets, seminars, and consultants have surfaced to help companies cope with the growing threat of violence on the job. Some experts focus on security concerns, others on promoting effective screening techniques or channels of communications to alert management to troublesome workers.

The overriding goal should be to make civility and decency in the workplace as critical as profit. Companies need to upgrade and humanize the way in which they deal with all employees every day rather than just to focus narrowly on how to respond to the one who has made threats. Long-term planning to improve employee morale pays off in human terms. A study conducted for Northwestern National Life Insurance concluded that companies with effective grievance, harassment, and security procedures also reported lower rates of workplace violence.

Twenty or 30 years ago, the bond between management and worker was stronger. But loyalty between worker and boss has gone the way of the dinosaur, replaced with an adversarial perspective on both sides. Moreover, the problem of workplace violence is broader than just the disgruntled worker. To a greater extent, customers and clients in hospitals, law firms, and other public and private worksites are expressing their displeasure in the most explosive way. Here too, rather than seeking to become more people-minded, corporate America seems to be moving in the wrong direction. As a result, disgruntled clients and customers confront frustrating automated phone systems as well as poorly-trained and uninspired customer relations staff.

In today's corporate environment, it is increasingly difficult to find someone in charge who has the ability, the authority, and the desire to make things right. Apparently, these days even the customer is not always right, unless, of course, he is packing an AK47.

* James Alan Fox and Jack Levin are professors at Northeastern University in Boston.

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