Workplace Violence Predictors: Finding Needles In Haystacks


This week's tenth anniversary of the Wakefield, Ma., massacre in which Michael McDermott methodically executed seven co-workers whom he blamed for conspiring with the IRS to rob him of his hard earned money raises questions about whether such incidents can be prevented, Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox writes in a Boston Globe blog. Fox says the typical workplace avenger is a reclusive, middle-aged white male who feels that his job and financial well-being are in jeopardy. He believes that he is not to blame. 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 increase; it’s the human resources personnel who are out to get him.

Notwithstanding the obvious nature of many of the profile descriptors, Fox says, the unfortunate and occasionally tragic fact is that lists of warning signs are not particularly helpful. Some of behaviors believed to be telltale signs are simply that: belief, often contradicted by empirical reality. For example, a history of substance abuse, often acknowledged as a warning sign, may be indicative of a troubled soul, but is not often characteristic of those who have perpetrated workplace attacks. Profiles and checklists designed to predict rare events — such as workplace shootings–tend to over-predict and to produce a large number of “false positives.” Regardless of the specific profile elements, many more employees will likely fit the profile than will seek revenge at work. The challenge is a matter of finding needles in haystacks.

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