Violence in the IT workplace

By Rochelle Garner
08/17/98 We live in a violent world, where aggression can burst upon the unwary on the roads, in our schools and in the workplace. A mark of that aggression: According to a report released by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, homicide is the leading cause of death on the job for American women and the second-leading cause for men. An average of 20 murders occur at work every week in the U.S.

The ILO warns that acts of violence can occur in any workplace, anywhere. No company, no department is immune least of all information technology organizations.

 

Connecticut Lottery Corp., for example, was a bastion of white-collar workers. Onetime-accountant-turned-killer Matthew Beck had been demoted to data processor his duties shifted to the IS department before his shooting rampage began.

What set Beck off, experts say, was his perceived mistreatment by management: A 1996 job change into the IS department should have included a $2-per-hour raise, he believed. Although lottery officials had agreed in January that Beck had been performing work outside his job classification, negotiations continued into March on how much the company owed him.

"People who commit violent acts are trying to regain control," says Gary Salmans, vice president and risk manager at Sedgwick of Colorado, Inc., a Denver-based insurance brokerage firm.

"There's always been stress in the workplace, but the higher the use of technology as a means of communication, as well as just sitting in front of a computer all day the more violence-prone we seem to become," says Salmans, who counsels companies on violence prevention.

 

That doesn't mean that computing technology promotes violence. Nor does it mean that technology organizations, per se, are at special risk. What it does mean is this: Today's undermanned and overstressed technology staffs often work in isolation. Face-to-face conversations tend to happen in hallways, rather than sitting around the lunchroom, which provides fewer outlets for staff members to vent their frustrations. Colleagues and managers turn to E-mail as the preferred form of communication, with little regard for tone.

 

The result? A noncaring atmosphere. Employees are increasingly being thrown into corporate cultures that exacerbate or condone hostile behavior. Add the inability of some individuals to deal with anger and poor management practices that promote perceptions of injustice. Mix the two, and you cook up a combustible stew. Such ingredients are not unique to IT organizations they're just too prevalent for IT's own good.

 

"People's penchant for hostility is about their inability to cope with adversity, and can't be associated with a particular type of industry or job. The problem is no worse for technical workers," maintains Coeta Chambers, human resources attorney at Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif. Chambers, as a member of Intel's Workplace Response Team, helped write the company's guidelines on dealing with hostile behavior.

 

Chambers is right despite shocking incidents at the Connecticut State Lottery this year and at ESL, Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., 10 years ago. In the latter incident, an ex-employee blasted through company doors to get at a former colleague he'd been stalking. Other work environments more likely to feel the stings of murderous hostility include health care, late-night retail stores and law firms, according to the ILO.

 

Still, workers killing colleagues represents only 3% to 5% of workplace violence, experts say. Far more prevalent acts of intentional harm include fighting, biting, bullying, shouting and vicious gossip. The key word is "intentional." We're not just talking about unthinking rudeness. It's behavior that's calculated to do damage.

 

"There is a wide range of aggressive behaviors that can harm people physically and psychologically as well as the company's bottom line," says Dr. Joel H. Neuman, director of the Center for Applied Management at the State University of New York in New Paltz.

 

"The FBI lists three types of exposure to violence by industries, with Type 1 having the potential for robbery and Type 2 being those that can be threatened by angry customers," says Beth Lindamood, senior analyst at Great American Insurance Cos. in Cincinnati. "The computer industry falls into Type 3 which is the most difficult to predict."

 

That third source of potential danger includes disgruntled employees and ex-spouses. "The danger signs can come out by asking the right questions in the interview process," Lindamood says. "Listen for why someone left a previous job. Was it a supervisor always stealing this person's ideas or always promoting someone else? It's especially revealing if that person has problems with authority figures."

 

Conduct unbecoming

According to the FBI, the profile of a person most likely to "go postal" is a white male, between 30 and 40 years old, with a keen interest in guns. Chances are you know some people who fit that all-too-vague description, so the U.S. Department of Justice has added the following warning signs to that profile:

        Someone who holds irrational ideas and beliefs.

        An employee experiencing exceptional stress outside of work, such as a divorce.

        A person who is fascinated by weapons.

        An employee who displays unwarranted anger.

        A person who can't take criticism.

        Someone who expresses a lack of concern for the safety of others.

Such warning signs paint a picture of a worker who not only can't get along with others but who actually prefers being solitary.

 

The trouble with applying that profile to an IT organization: It describes the stereotypical software geek unwilling or unable to interact with fellow humans. Even worse, by the time you notice an employee exhibiting three or four of these indicators, he may already be close to extreme action.

 

Garner is a freelance writer in San Carlos, Calif.