workplace violence

If you spend any time working with a small group of people on intense, timeline-driven projects with limited resources you’ve experienced some – or maybe a lot of – tension. You’ve probably also read, with some trepidation, stories of people showing up at the office with an AK-47 dressed all in black.  How likely is it that the person next to you will snap?  Recent events showed us that even mild-mannered professors can snap (although the “mild-mannered” part might have just been a cover for a seething, troubled pysche).  What flips the kill switch?

Anyone who chooses to strap on steel-toed boots, load up an automatic weapon and go shoot at Suzy because she didn’t help him on the March budget presentation would have gone crazy working on a horse farm, too. I’ve never killed anyone, but I’ve wanted to “kill people” in fits of anger.  I never came close to translating that fit of anger into an actual, concrete series of actions to kill that person; for example, going to the gun store, buying ammo and studying schematics of the fourth floor.  Yet office shootings do occur.

I’ve been in arguments in the office over the years. Occasionally profanity-laced and often with raised voices, only twice did they reach the level of actual physical violence.  One was not surprising, the result of a fraud investigation I was leading; the subject threatened me and I had to be escorted by security in the evenings after his termination.  It was all bluster, though, and nothing happened.

The other incident, I’m sad to say, was initiated by me. A fellow manager and I had argued over responsibilities on a shared project, ranging from staffing to budget to the question of “ownership” of the results of the report.  The argument escalated over two days.  On the second day, I was working at a client’s office about an hour by public transportation from my company’s office.  A phone call from the other manager (I’ll call him Jim) came late in the afternoon after a stressful afternoon working on a particularly difficult set of audit items.  In the middle of the Russian winter, I was in the midst of (yet another) semi-cold/semi-bronchitis episode and in no mood for yet another go-around with Jim.  Jim – at least in my opinion – was a bit of a Crip, and I was hanging with the Bloods (you’ll have to read my article on life in the salt mine to fully appreciate that reference).  Jim was everything I disliked about expatriates in Russia; disdainful of the language, the people, contemptuous of their education and unable to stutter out a single word in the language of the country in which he lived.

I’d like to say I remember the real initiator of the afternoon’s meltdown, but I don’t.
I do remember standing in front of my (mostly female) staff in a conference room, doing that cartoonish move where you hold the phone receiver in front of your face, yelling at the top of my lungs while his voice rang out in an echo from the earpiece.  Choice words were exchanged.  After slamming the phone down, I calmly put all of my stuff together in my bag and walked out.  My staff assumed I was going home for the day.

Instead, I walked the mile to the subway station seething. I walked into the station, got a token, caught a train, sat and seethed.  It arrived at my company’s office after 45 minutes.  I walked past security, took off my coat and dropped my bags, and walked down the hall.  I turned into the cubicle area where Jim worked, and saw him over the low walls.  Thunderous yelling between the two of us commenced.  I taunted him in Russian, which he didn’t understand.  He grew louder and more threatening until I picked up an office chair and threw it as hard as I could directly at him.  At his head.  All of this I did calmly, premeditated and without any “fog of rage” type of intention.  I meant to do it, more than an hour in advance of actually doing it.

I’m not a small guy and back then I was not small at all. I had the strength and body mass to throw something as awkward as an office chair with a great deal of velocity, and I didn’t take anything off of it.  I missed, though, and both Jim and I were restrained by several of our colleagues.  The odd part was this:  the principals of our little company never even came out of their offices.  Motivated by fear that I was the guy with the bullet with their name on it?  Or just indifferent?

After that, things were better. Jim and I weren’t asked or expected to work on anything together, or even speak.  We crossed paths again but had the good sense not to engage in a fistfight in an office building where the security guards carried sawed-off shotguns.  Jim drifted back to his home country after a while, forgotten by both the expats and the Russians in my office.  I faded away slowly, burned out by illness and rage, until I left Russia for the relaxed pace of Manhattan.

I’m not sure what might have happened if I had access to a weapon that day.
Probably nothing; I’m not stupid.  In America that would land you in jail, but in Russia I would probably have ended up having a couple of those aforementioned shotguns’ butts applied to my skull – if I wasn’t having my right arm blown off first.  But for a while I had a brief glimpse of the level of rage that could be set on fire by something as trivial as work; started by work, fanned by exhaustion, stress and contempt.

I don’t get as angry anymore. By stages I’ve moved away from that type of work to contracting jobs, which demand little and pay well.  I haven’t been in a fight of any sort in at least ten years, although opportunities have arisen.  Once you’re married and have children, it’s easy to think of the consequences for THEM and to back down; nobody needs daddy in the hoosegow.   But I wonder how many people lurk in these high-stress jobs in cubicles.  How often does someone spend the hour commute home fantasizing about killing their boss and telling themselves that their fantasy is just “blowing off steam?”

The fantasy occurs more often than we’d like, I bet. The short-term mentality promoted by stock markets and corporations,  far-flung “communities” creating longer and longer communities and the pressure to superconsume are constantly testing the stress points of millions of people.  If we’re “lucky”, the most vulnerable have health problems or depression and drop out before they hurt someone else.  The easy availability of firearms doesn’t help (and yes gun-owners, I know it would have helped if someone else is armed and can shoot the shooter; are you REALLY going to feel better if HR issues you – and everyone else –  a handgun at employee orientation)?

I don’t think there’s a solution; there have always been people who kill for their own dark, unbalanced reasons. But at some point as a society we’ll have to look at the way in which fear of unemployment and consumerism and access to firearms will continue to create fearful office environments, leading to more stress and a downward spiral.  It’s not a path anyone wants to stroll down.  I’m sorry I was part of it.  If you think it’s not lurking out there in the dark corners of the office at 3:45 on a grim Wednesday, you’re more optimistic than I am.

Note: A good read on this subject is Going Postal, a book written by Mark Ames, a guy whose writing I much admire (much like his partner, Matt Taibbi) for their writing for the eXile, both in Moscow at the same time I was there (where I didn’t know them although I think based on hazy recollections that I met Mark at a party). Mark’s got some terrifying stories in his book, which should serve as an anthem to anti-cubicle life if there ever was one.  Oh, and yes, that’s an affiliate link, if you buy the book through that link I will become minutely wealthier-ish, so please, if you were planning on buying it, do so through that link.  Thanks FCC for the requirement to do that extra disclosure:  the world is safer in your hands.

photo by darkpatator

10 comments

  • Dude. I've been there, maybe not to that extreme, but I've been there. I think employers fail to recognize the incredible effect that stress has on their employees and too many employers think, “I'll just replace the stressed out people with someone who can handle it.” Doesn't always work that way.

    I've actually gotten into shouting matches with my boss (not a good idea), but in those cases, I was right and he was just a prick who wanted to throw his weight around. It never got physical, but I was ready for it.

  • I've been lucky enough to avoid situations like this in my work (I tend to keep to myself), but since I work in a law firm, some of my colleagues have been involved in various skirmishes, such as having files and books thrown at them by cranky partners. One of my friends was caught in a headlock by opposing counsel during a deposition. The sad part is that no one thinks this is all that abnormal. I hate my profession.

  • I used to let pricks in the office get under my skin. Ditto for the ones out on the road. What changed it for me is when the area I live in started to change and get more dangerous. Having been a shooter all my life, I got a concealed carry license and started toting a roscoe… that is a sobering experience. Knowing the kind of destruction that you can deliver and then going home to your kids and realizing that some other SOB that pissed you off in traffic is probably going home to his kids. I can protect myself and my family but that is not something to take lightly. Walk away if you can, run away if you must but the taking of any life is always the last option. The most important thing is that you make it home every night to your family. Don't let someone else raise your kids because you lost your temper and are now locked up. Easy access to guns is not the problem. Neither is throwing chairs.

  • Working in construction which often has a bit of a “mine is bigger than yours” vibe around it at the best of times I've seen several fistfights over stupid things like estimates and schedules and a whole lotta shouting. Personally I don't get involved. I do get stressed out, sometimes enormously so, but just walk away from any shouting match. At this point I've decided I'm not paid enough to deal with grown men throwing tantrums. My worplace violence moment, which I'll never live down, was coming home stressed up to my eyeballs and kicking the dishwasher door to death 🙂 Only one who suffered from that was my bank balance!

  • Theopaulson

    Thanks for being so honest. I worked in one place where the tension was so thick all day long. Yet, it was a church- so we all pretended we did not want to smack the boss upside the head with a blunt object.I usually resorted to snarky comments to vent off the anger. I ended up leaving- and 6 months after the boss was fired for a host of issues he has that came out soon after. We all have issues! The worst is when a superior or the head honcho is the one who is making it a violent or uncomfortable place to work. Then you job and livelihood is on the line. Phew.

  • Wow a dark article with some poignant points! I am glad you swayed away from anger.

    I have been under some very stressful deadlines and work and the most I ever did was write a long letter to my directors telling them my job and how I have exceeded every point of my job role and that mistakes are a human error that were more than paid for by my extra work…. The result of my rage was strangely a pay rise but it still ultimately left to me leaving as it set off a spark to get out.

    I am glad you do not get angry anymore and your story in hindsight is a little amusing.

    The non-amusing thing is when people do crack and kill…. This rage is not normal and probably is inside more people than we imagine!

    Thanks for a great read.
    Forest.
    http://frugalzeitgeist.com

  • I've actually gotten into shouting matches with my boss (not a good idea), but in those cases, I was right and he was just a prick who wanted to throw his weight around. It never got physical, but I was ready for it.

  • I have been following your blog for over a year and I have to say the quality of your posts has gone up tremendously. In fact, you have inspired me to start a PF blog of my own: http://www.worryfreefinance.com. There isn't much on it yet but I want to build it as a place to share my ideas and get feedback.

    On the topic of office violence. I think there are two aspects of it. Hostile environment or an ignorant yet arrogant co-worker.

    If the environment itself is hostile, there isn't much you can do. You can just change jobs. That is a subject of a completely different and big topic in itself.
    As for the ignorant yet arrogant co-worker. They can really get under your skin. You know they are wrong but they have the arrogance that annoys everyone. I worked with a co-worker like this last year. He was pushing a project in a completely wrong direction because of lack of his knowledge. Itried to convince this person for several weeks. Ultimately I had to escalate the issue to very senior management. Accusations flew, time was wasted but I managed to get the project back on the right track. Thankfully, most of these meetings were on the phone, otherwise there was a serious potential for fist-fights!

    • @worryfree: wow, thanks – I can't think of a better tribute than starting a blog, frankly! That's a kind thing for you to say and I really appreciate it. I'll add a third possibility to your two, though – the fact that you (and by 'you' I mean me) might be the problem. I'm not a great fit for a corporate environment, and I'm sure that contributes to the tension. Sometimes it's not jerk coworkers or a hostile environment – it's just a square peg being repeatedly rammed into a round hole.

  • This time last year, I actually wondered if we were soon to be the targets of workplace violence. Having been demoted for his incompetence, my manager had taken to muttering or stating outright that some days, he wanted to just come in with a gun and start shooting everyone he hated, “it was just too bad the ones he really hated weren't in the same office.” Other days, he'd say that he wished he could just torch the place. I wondered how much longer we had before he snapped and really did commit the violence.