'They seek to kill the company'

Workplace avengers don't just snap; they target their rage

By James Alan Fox, 12/31/2000

It took only minutes for 42-year-old Michael McDermott to become the gunman who stole Christmas. According to eyewitnesses, McDermott arrived at the Wakefield office of Edgewater Technology Tuesday armed with a semiautomatic assault rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a pistol. By the time the police captured him in the reception area, seven employees lay dead from gunfire.

What was it that could have caused McDermott, charged with seven counts of murder, to ''go crazy,'' as one witness described his behavior? What could have made him snap? Or did he in fact snap?

The widespread belief that gunmen, like McDermott, erupt suddenly into an uncontrollable, murderous rage is deeply grounded in the popular vernacular often used to characterize these events: expressions like ''going berserk,'' ''going ballistic,'' or even ''going postal'' (a code word for workplace massacres coined after a string of post office shootings in the mid-1980s and early 1990s). The prevailing view is that mass killers are totally out of touch with reality (that is, psychotic) and select their victims randomly.

To the contrary, however, most mass murderers - and workplace avengers in particular - do not just explode and start shooting spontaneously at anything that moves. Typically, these murderers act with calm deliberation, often planning their assault for days, if not weeks or months in advance. Their preparations involve assembling the arsenal of weaponry as well as determining the most effective means of attack.

In addition, workplace mass murderers tend to be quite selective in targeting their victims. Rather than an act of sheer insanity, their homicide is an act of controlled vengeance. Victims are chosen specifically because of the perceived harm that they have caused the perpetrator, who may himself feel like a victim of injustice.

Of course, it may be difficult to consider many of the slain employees of the Wakefield massacre to be in any way responsible for McDermott's adversities, no matter how paranoid his perceptions may have been. But if McDermott's motive was to strike back at Edgewater Technology, then executing anyone employed there would have fulfilled his mission.

In many instances, profoundly disgruntled workers imagine a wide-ranging network of unfairness on the job implicating nearly everyone. 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 enterprise.

McDermott, it has been reported, was upset that Edgewater Technology was about to garnish his wages to pay back taxes he owed to the IRS. In his mind, conceivably, the company had gone from ally to enemy, joining hands with the federal government to ruin him financially. He apparently saw in mass murder his opportunity to make a preemptive strike against the firm.

In the weeks and months ahead, we will undoubtedly learn much more about the tortured mind and angry personality of McDermott. We will determine if he indeed fits the usual profile of the ''employee from hell,'' a profile that has become all too familiar in recent times.

Typically, the workplace avenger is a middle-aged white male who feels that his job and financial well-being are in jeopardy. Facing yet another disappointment or failure at work, he senses that his career is slipping away. He also believes that he is not to blame 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 human resources personnel 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, which, in his mind, represents the final straw.

For McDermott, the triggering episode may have involved the scheduled reduction in his take-home check for payment of back taxes as well as the news that his automobile was about to be repossessed. His financial woes had apparently grown too large for him to tolerate.

Reports from neighbors describe McDermott as a ''loner.'' Most mass killers are indeed isolated, socially and psychologically. Importantly, they lack the companionship of friends and family who might help ease them through the hard times and place employment troubles in perspective. Holidays like Christmas can sometimes intensify feelings of loneliness, especially for those individuals who lack support systems the rest of the year.

Unfortunately, the grieving families of the Edgewater Technology victims share a tragedy that too many others have suffered. Nationally, about six people are murdered every month at the hands of a co-worker or former co-worker. And for every incident of workplace homicide, thousands of workers are assaulted or threatened by an associate. We can only wonder, moreover, as the economy softens and an increasing number of middle-aged workers face downsizing, whether other beleaguered employees will choose to be the one to do the firing.

In response to rising levels of workplace violence, a wide range of books and pamphlets, seminars, and consultants have surfaced to help companies cope with the fearful threat of violence on the job. Some specialists focus on security concerns, others on promoting effective employee screening techniques or channels of communication to alert management to troublesome workers.

The term ''profiling'' has become a catchword for those who would search for telltale clues for identifying potential murderers before they strike. If there is indeed a profile of typical workplace avengers, can we spot them before they take matters and guns into their own hands?

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 live alone, yet very few will ever translate their inner feelings of anger into outward expressions of violence.

Yet in the aftermath of a mass killing, everyone becomes a psychologist when it comes to identifying murderous behavior. With the benefit of hindsight, neighbors and co-workers suddenly find all of the warning signs that they ignored beforehand - when they might have used such information possibly to prevent a massacre. As one of McDermott's co-workers suggested upon hearing about the shooting in Wakefield: ''I knew right away it was McDermott.'' Of course, just like everybody else, the co-worker ''knew'' only after the tragic fact had occurred.

Moreover, should we be too proactive and aggressive in trying to spot the so-called ''ticking time bomb,'' we can easily do much more harm than good. If this employee perceives that he is being singled out in a negative way - even if it is to coerce him into counseling - his resentment and feelings of persecution can actually intensify.

Although we may not be able to predict the next Michael McDermott, we can certainly strive to enhance the workplace climate for everyone, especially should a recession take its toll on the nation's work force.

The overriding goal should be to make civility and decency in the workplace as critical as profit. Companies need to upgrade and humanize the way in which they deal with all employees every day rather than just to focus narrowly on how to respond to the one who has made threats or fits a profile. Long-term planning with strong human resources programs will greatly improve the workplace climate and employee morale. A study conducted for Northwestern National Life Insurance concluded that companies with effective grievance, harassment, and security procedures also reported lower rates of workplace violence.

A single-minded focus on financial profit and loss ignores the human dimension. As Arnold Hiatt of the Stride Rite Foundation has said, ''employees are a company's most valuable resource.'' Besides, in view of the tremendous costs associated with a violent episode (lost wages, lawsuits, increased insurance premiums, employee attrition, public relations problems, etc.), investing in employee well-being may be a wise business move from which everyone in a company can profit.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. He is co-author (with Jack Levin) of The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder (Allyn and Bacon, 2001)

This story ran on page D01 of the Boston Globe on 12/31/2000.
Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.