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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And the gun laws aren't the issue? ROFLMAO!!!! This story just proves that case and point just how wrong that is.

February 02 2013 at 8:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I wonder if a study has been done on the effects of micro-managing as it pertains to employee atitude and mental well being. Of course the managers would see no real need for this and dismiss it as poppycock!

August 04 2012 at 7:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My problem is do they have a recording of him saying it, or did the "boss" get PO'ed when the worker told him off and is telling lies. His word against the boss.

August 03 2012 at 8:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm from Arkansas, maybe I wasn't paying attention, but this is the first I have heard about Steven Strange. He should have been given something for heroism and not suspended. Two days before the Pine Bluff shooting, one of my coworkers said there were some people she could kill. Her comment was in regard to her getting in trouble for violating policy. I was one of those people. Administration decided not to turn it over to the police, they just wrote her up. Really?

August 03 2012 at 8:09 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to chicorynme's comment

Am I the only one that finds it funny, that a story that talks about the "Batman Shooter" also has a story about a guy who stopped another shooter, named Steven Strange? The Sorcerer Supreme is real?... I am such a geek.

August 04 2012 at 12:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The solution is simple. Hire more people so the workers working overtime can get back to a regular 40-hour week and resume their sanity. Some of my friends were "lucky" to survive layoffs, only to find that their workload had been increased because there were fewer workers to do it. I can see why some workers would finally had enough and go on a violent rampage. At least you can't be homeless in prison.

August 03 2012 at 7:53 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ides315r's comment

I'm sure that works, unfortunately, people I know are happy to get overtime for the money part. But I can see your point about overwork and extended hours

September 26 2012 at 4:10 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

This character has more problems than what can be dealt with here in a comments section.

August 03 2012 at 6:53 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I was calmly sitting on the F train when the conductor started screaming "yeah, yeah, yeah yeah" as if he were watching some sort of sport and he then laughed maniacally fora few seconds.. Everyone in the train car stared at the little room at the front of the train quite puzzled. Thankfully the ride went as planned and no one got of the train - but it was still pretty ******* weird lol

August 03 2012 at 6:18 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

why is it so easy to get guns and ammunition?

August 03 2012 at 4:52 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dbrockskk1's comment

Because it's out right to own guns and ammunition.

August 03 2012 at 6:42 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to kemarie's comment


August 03 2012 at 6:42 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down

The definition in the Consitution was left extremely vague. It didn't give you the right to own a weapon of mass destruction such as an AK-47 because they didn't exist. Use your head and common sense. The clear lack of being to prove case and points on this matter is why it will fail and the automatics and high capacity magazines will not be successful to keep. COMMON SENSE USE THE NOGGIN!!!!!

February 02 2013 at 8:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

It is good that action was taken on an implied threat. I am a NRA Life member and I have had to report some situations to police. The threats included using a baseball bat and such. Fortunately they all turned out to be individuals just venting some steam. (None involved gun threats and no one's house was searched). None the less, I got police involved in every situation. Once they did not take the threat seriously even when put in writing (It did not stipulate a specific action on a specific day in one written "threat." I was clear to me so I had my supervisor contact the individual - after I pointed out that I could and would defend myself with lethal force!).

The statement "It's important to keep in mind: Safety always trumps privacy" is inappropriate in this application. If there is a threat, there is no expectation of privacy.

While the statements "... his superiors made that very calculation. And the decision may have saved lives." may be true, it is also true that a handgun used by an employee (once again) "may have saved lives" as well. It is interesting that most of those "left of center" will continue to ignore the positive (and most critical "calculation") that guns save lives every day. If 80% of us are 'good,' then think of the impact if a gun was pulled by a 'bad' guy. He could got a response of 50 or 60 guns in his face. Go back to the math and revisit the "very calculated decision" many organizations make every day.

August 03 2012 at 4:51 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ps's comment

A handgun vs automatic wepaons and finding high cap magazines is a very big difference. In fact so much your statement and the story solidifies the need to ban automatic weapons and high capacity magazines. Hanguns no but that against weapons of mass destruction is like a sumo wrestler vs a 100 lb weakling. But once again were seeing in every single one of these situation a clear lack of gun laws , mental illness, and automatic weapons and high capacity mags are in fact the very root of theproblem. No one is saying take away guns., But we are all saying where mental illness is concerned a lot more stringent background checks is required in iight of this. In addition, it further supports the much needed ban on automatic weapons. Id be for this if background checks were instated and a person comes back with a clean slate on mental illness and has a hunting license in those cases some automatic hunting weapons should be allowed but not a weapon designed to take out classrooms. YOu helped make my case and point also.

February 02 2013 at 8:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Perhaps this is the reason that this man was fired over the phone? Can you imagine what he would have done had he been fired sitting in front of his boss? OMG, that T shirt he was wearing at home when the police picked him up. I hope that he gets the help he needs??

August 03 2012 at 4:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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