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