Killing the company

By James Alan Fox and Jack Levin.

James Alan Fox the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice and Jack Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology, both at Northeastern University in Boston.

August 29, 2003

It took only minutes for 36-year-old Salvador Tapia to become the newest addition to a growing list of workplace avengers. According to eyewitnesses, Tapia arrived at Windy City Core Supply on the South Side Wednesday morning armed with a .380-caliber semiautomatic, and killed six employees before being gunned down by the police.

What caused Tapia to "snap," as his ex-girlfriend described his behavior? Or did he, in fact, snap? The widespread belief that gunmen, like Tapia, erupt suddenly into an uncontrollable rage is deeply grounded in the popular vernacular used to characterize these events--expressions like "going berserk" or even "going postal."

To the contrary, most workplace avengers do not just erupt and start shooting spontaneously at anything that moves. Typically, these are well-planned executions in order to get even for perceived mistreatment on the job. In addition, workplace mass murderers tend to be quite selective in targeting their victims. In effect, they seek to kill the company.

Innocent workers, although uninvolved with the killer's grievance, may be targeted as proxies for the corporate entity.

Of course, it would be difficult to consider any of the slain employees at Windy City to be at all responsible for Tapia's adversities, no matter how paranoid his perceptions may have been. But if Tapia's motive was to strike back at the company, then executing anyone employed there would have fulfilled his mission.

Tapia was reportedly furious that Windy City had fired him. Apparently, in his mind, the company had become the evil enemy. He apparently saw in mass murder his opportunity to make a pre-emptive strike against the work site.

In the weeks ahead, we will learn much more about Tapia's tortured mind and angry personality, and determine if he indeed fits the all too familiar profile of the "employee from hell." Typically, the workplace avenger is a middle-aged male who feels that his financial well-being is in jeopardy. He senses that his career is slipping away, but also that he is blameless for his employment troubles. Rather, it's the supervisor who gives him poor assignments or doesn't appreciate his hard work; it's his co-workers who get all the credit when profits go up; it's the owners who are out to get him.

In support of his conspiratorial thinking, the workplace avenger prior to his deadly rampage typically suffers a catastrophic event, the "final straw." For Tapia, the triggering episode was, in all likelihood, the loss of his job.

If there is a profile of workplace avengers, can we spot them before they take matters and guns into their own hands? Psychologists from Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, for example, are taking a high-tech approach to the prediction effort by creating software for tracking potentially violent workers.

Regrettably, such prediction strategies are doomed to fail. There are likely tens of thousands of disgruntled Americans in workplaces large and small who are frustrated, never smile and are "on edge," yet very few will ever translate their inner feelings of anger into outward expressions of violence.

Tapia, of course, did have a history of lashing out against family members, but not against his co-workers. He apparently had made a threatening phone call to one of his bosses, but it was not taken seriously enough to report. Actually, most threatening workers never follow through with action. And thousands of otherwise benign employees are, in their everyday propensity for belligerence on the job, indistinguishable from Tapia.

Yet in the aftermath of a mass killing, everyone becomes a psychologist. In hindsight, friends and co-workers suddenly find all of the warning signs that they ignored beforehand. As Tapia's ex-girlfriend told a reporter upon hearing about his shooting spree: "I knew he was going to snap ... He was angry at the world." Of course, just like everybody else, she only really "knew" after the tragic fact had occurred.

Moreover, treating a disgruntled worker like a ticking time bomb can do much more harm than good. If he senses that he is being targeted in a negative way, it could reinforce any feelings of persecution that he may already harbor, and could actually precipitate a violent outburst.

Ultimately, the best approach for reducing the risk of workplace violence is not to focus on the Salvador Tapias of the world--the oddballs and misfits--but to humanize the entire workplace. Civility, respect, decency and worker satisfaction must become a critical part of the bottom line. It may not have prevented Tapia from taking revenge, but it would certainly reduce the problem of employee disgruntlement and the risk of violence somewhere down the line.