Extreme Reactions to Toxic Work Environments
Amelia Howard, University of Waterloo, 2007
(Presented in the Seminar in the Sociology of Work, Department of Sociology, University of Waterloo, 2007; published by K. Westhues on the Academic Mobbing Website by permission of Amelia Howard, to whom any requests for further publication should be directed.)
A few months ago I turned on the television to see reports that a student at Virginia Tech had shot and killed 32 people, wounded many others, and then killed himself. As a student, I found the very thought of mass violence in a university setting disturbing. At the same time, although the death toll at Virginia Tech was the highest ever, many similar events elsewhere came to my mind as I read about this tragedy. The news reports kept discussing the killer’s mental state. They said he was extremely disturbed, violent and crazy. This information did not strike me as very enlightening. Of course he was insane and violent: he killed 32 people! The Virginia Tech massacre seemed not to be a purely random act of madness. There have been many other shootings on campuses and in workplaces across North America which seem to follow a similar pattern: the person committing the murder had been bullied and either lost or feared losing his job.
Whenever a mass shooting happens, the same questions are asked. Would tougher gun control laws make workplace and university shootings more rare? Would arming every student, teacher, manager and worker enable others to defend themselves if one person did snap? Should administrators and managers enforce mandatory psychiatric exams for students and staff? Although these questions come from different sides of the political spectrum, they are founded on the same assumption, that people are going to snap no matter what, so the proper focus is on how we can protect ourselves. These questions do not address how workplaces can prevent people from lashing out violently in the first place. They only offer suggestions as to how we can make it harder for these dangerous people to kill others, or how we can keep them out of the workplace altogether.
What if it is the workplace that turns certain individuals into dangerous people? My purpose here is to show that workers or students (whose workplace is the university) who snap and kill others and themselves are not always acting randomly, even if they are psychologically disturbed. Often, when people lash out, it is in part due to an extremely unhealthy work environment. In many ways, they are pushed to the brink. I am not in any way justifying the murder of managers, teachers, or peers. Such acts are disgusting, inexcusable, wrong. At the same time, these acts are often in response to years of bullying or mobbing by peers and bosses. combined with fear of job loss. Many of these workplace tragedies could have been avoided if those in charge had done more to ensure positive and healthy relations in the workplace, rather than taking part in or encouraging negative ones.
Toxic Work Environments and Workplace Homicide
As discussed in this essay, a toxic work environment has nothing to do with exposure to hazardous materials on the job but refers instead to the emotionally and mentally destructive culture that exists in certain workplaces. This may be due to high levels of rationalization and consequent depersonalization, to job insecurity, as well as to situations where those in positions of authority mob or bully employees, or turn a blind eye to employees who are being mobbed by coworkers – or to any combination of these factors. In the cases outlined below, workers (including a nursing student for whom school was at that time his workplace) worked in environments undergoing rationalization, feared losing or had lost their jobs, and were mobbed and harassed by their peers and/or superiors. Their reactions to this harassment were extreme, violent and inexcusable, but not irrational. The murders discussed below were due to toxic environments, not merely individual pathologies. This essay also supports the argument made by Hout (2004) that portrayal of these and similar cases by the media, company officials, and politicians, as unavoidable acts of senseless violence, ignores the root cause of this type of violence, namely a pathological workplace, and thus makes it likely that similar tragedies will continue to occur.
Workplace Homicide Case #1: OC Transpo
Pierre Lebrun was a victim of coworkers’ harassment at OC Transpo, a public transit service in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. His stutter made him an easy target. The harassment likely began after Lebrun took sick leave instead of picketing during a transit strike in 1996. Lebrun was picked on not just by one bully but by a whole group; in short, he was mobbed by his coworkers. What’s worse, management at OC Transpo, though aware Lebrun was being harassed, let it go on. One day, Lebrun snapped. He hit one of his bullies – a reaction hardly surprising from someone with a limited ability to defend himself verbally. For this act of self defence, Lebrun was fired. The union protested, claiming management should not fire him because he was disabled, and also arguing that Lebrun’s punishment was far too grave for the crime. Lebrun was given his job back, but the conditions under which this happened exacerbated an already tense situation. With no recognition of the harassment he had suffered, Lebrun was forced to apologise to his bully. As if this was not enough humiliation, he was required to take anger management classes. Now Lebrun had his job back and his bullies had carte blanche to continue harassing him, as he was the one officially identified as having anger problems. After serving the company for 13 years, Pierre Lebrun returned to OC Transpo on April 6, 1999, and killed four workers and himself. His suicide note listed people who had harassed him. His mother told the local paper: “He said a group of people were harassing him…. That’s why he went there, to kill the people who harassed him.” (Case summary drawn from Branswell 1999 and Hout 2004).
Workplace Violence Case #2: University of Arizona
Nursing student Robert Flores was seen as an obnoxious troublemaker by many instructors and students at the University of Arizona’s College of Nursing (Broder 2002). As an assertive male mature student, he did not fit in with the culture of the college, which was dominated by younger white middle-class women (Flores 2002). Perhaps this is why one of his instructors would ignore his questions in class, and at one point threaten to kick him out of school for disrupting class sessions, without giving him any examples of specific behaviour he had displayed to warrant such a punishment (Flores 2002). Perhaps it was because they saw Flores as nothing more than a weird, troubled student that college administrators refused even to look into his allegations of being treated unfairly by his teachers. From reading both newspaper articles and Flores’ own account of his experience at the school, it is clear that Flores was seen and treated as a nuisance, a problem student, and to some extent, a threat, and his instructors believed that he was not fit to be a registered nurse. Alhough he was in general a competent student, Flores was close to being kicked out of the nursing program for failing the clinical portion of his studies, not for a specific offence, but rather for a trend of rudeness to staff and patients (Flores 2002) . On October 29, 2002, Flores went to school with a rifle. He shot and killed three instructors, whom he saw as the key people who ganged up on him. Then he killed himself. In a 22-page suicide note, he explained that he knew he had broken the law and would save taxpayers money by ending his own life.
Multiple Cases of Workplace Violence: Going Postal
Between 1985 and 2006, the United States Postal Service was the setting for a series of homicides so similar in form that the term “going postal” was coined to describe the pattern. The bloodiest mass murder took place at the post office in Edmond, Oklahoma, in August of 1986. Letter carrier Patrick Sherril, who was facing being fired, killed 14 of his coworkers and then himself (Middleman Thomas 1997). Another well-known incident happened in Royal Oak, Michigan. Thomas McIlvane, a postal worker who had recently been fired killed the four managers who had been involved in ousting him and then he killed himself. The tragedies like Edmond and Royal Oak were not unique. At least 35 postal workers have been killed by their coworkers since 1985 (Denenberg and Braverman 1999). In most of these murders, assailants faced losing their jobs or were under severe job-related stress. Another key factor in the majority of these postal murders has been an extremely negative relationship between management and workers (see Going Postal Again, video 2006). The dominant management style in the US postal service has been described as authoritarian and militaristic, and the postal service itself admits this is true (Denenberg and Braverman 1999).
Workplace Rationalization and Job Insecurity
In order to maximize profits, private corporations tend to look for the cheapest and fastest way to produce products and services. This often means replacing paid employees with machines that work faster and cost less. It can also mean restructuring the workplace and breaking down work into highly specialized tasks, so that a smaller number of workers can produce the same quantity of a product as before. Denenberg and Braverman (1999) quoted a union leader who lamented about the negative changes to work which came with rationalization:
The consequences of job insecurity can manifest themselves in symptoms resembling mental disorder such as “irritable or hostile behaviour, anger, mistrust, mood swings, depression, and withdrawal from social and family supports” (Denenberg and Braverman, 1999).
The transportation industry was not going through intense rationalization at the time of the OC Transpo murders. There was, however, some restructuring of jobs, since Lebrun was moved from his position as a bus driver to three different clerical jobs before the shooting. In his case, the reason for the shift in the type of work was probably the harassment rather than rationalization, but in follow-up studies of OC Transpo, rationalization (in particular a merger of all Ottawa transit companies) has been cited as a reason that workers feel tensions are still high even after the shooting. One way that rationalization can potentially be tied to the case is that Lebrun’s harassment began after a strike which he did not participate in. Although I was not able to find out the reason for the strike, strikes in general are a reaction to wage cuts, demands that workers be more flexible, and other elements of rationalization. But whether or not rationalization was a factor in Lebrun’s case, job insecurity was. After being fired, he was rehired on condition that he take anger management training, and he was led to believe that if he stood up to his bullies again, he would lose his job for good.
In the case of the University of Arizona shootings, there is little evidence that rationalization was a direct factor. What is true, however, is that the face of universities in North America is changing from one which promoted the values of higher learning and knowledge for its own sake, to credential-producing factories that operate in a far more bureaucratic fashion. The standardized and depersonalized environment that exists in universities may have been one of the factors leading Flores to kill his instructors. Flores’s suicide note as well as many news reports on the tragedy mentioned that his questions in class were seen as disruptive, a waste of time. This could reflect the shift from valuing inquiry to simply expecting students to consume the information they are given. It is also clear that job insecurity was a definite factor in why Flores murdered his teachers.
The United States Postal Service is a textbook example of the rationalization of the work force. The 2006 documentary, Going Postal Again, explained that the introduction of technology like mail-sorting machine and laser barcodes on envelopes meant that thousands of postal jobs were to become obsolete. The pressure to compete with private delivery services like FedEx, UPS and Purolator drove the USPS to replace paid workers with machines. According to this documentary, instead of mass lay-offs, post offices began cutting hours, and finding ways to fire employees in order to cut back the work force. Job insecurity therefore was extremely high in the post office both during and after mail sorting technology was introduced.
Unhealthy Management Styles and Mobbing
Although rationalization of the workplace can mean higher stress and set the stage for a toxic work environment could flourish, the individuals in the cases I have looked at were responding to much more personal issues. They were being mobbed by coworkers or supervisors. Their violence was an extreme reaction to their victimization. Workplace mobbing is the “fanatic ganging up of managers and/or co-workers against a targeted worker,” in which the target is subjected to “a barrage of hostile communications, humiliations, threats and tricks, toward the end of driving the target out of his or her job” (Heinz Leymann, in Westhues 2006, p. 2). According to Westhues 2002-03, the harm that comes out of unhealthy interpersonal relationships is the type of harm which should be the most feared by workers in this day and age, and its effect can be deadly. The trauma of being mobbed can be debilitating for targets. Westhues cites mobbing researcher Heinz Leymann's study of suicide in Sweden, which showed that 12 percent of those who took their own lives had been mobbed at work.
Laurent Lapierre, a business instructor at the University of Ottawa, claims that it is management who is responsible for stopping mobbing: “People in leadership positions… cannot afford to be wishy washy and to show ambivalence with respect to tolerance with [mobbing] behaviour, because as soon as they show some kind of favouritism, or turning a blind eye, then they’re going to lose the trust of their employees (CBC Radio, April 25, 2006).
It is clear that in the case of Lebrun, managers tolerated his being harassed by his coworkers up until a point that Lebrun hit one of his bullies. The formal punishment he received for this act only made the mobbing and harassment worse (Hout 2004). His suicide note listed the people who had harassed him, as well as those he liked; this shows that his violence was a direct reaction to being mobbed (Branswell 1999).
There is also evidence to suggest Flores had been mobbed by his instructors. Using Westhues’ checklist of mobbing indicators (2006) as a guide to determine if Flores’ case fits the profile of a typical case, I found that by most indicators, it did. An example is the adding up of Flores’ real and imagined offences to make a much larger offence. This occurred when Flores failed his clinical for a general trend of rudeness to staff and patients. Westhues describes that in mobbing cases, “the target is seen as personally abhorrent, with no redeeming qualities; stigmatizing, exclusionary labels are applied.” This is very true for the case of Flores, who was referred to as “an obnoxious jerk” who was “belligerent, angry and rude” (Broder 2002). Westhues also argues that in cases of mobbing, there is often a fear of violence from the target. Broder reported in the New York Times that one of Flores’ victims feared that he was violent:
Sadly, this instructor and two others were correct in their fears that Flores had the potential for violence. What is less clear is whether their view of Flores as disruptive, hostile and dangerous led them to single him out, humiliate him, and thus create a situation where his violent potential was likely to be realized.
It is also clear that Flores simply did not fit in at the College of Nursing. In his suicide note, he stated:
This assertion should be looked at critically. Clearly, Flores was very angry and disturbed when he wrote the note. Still, there is likely some truth in what he said. Flores’ inability and unwillingness to conform to the traditional feminine qualities of the nursing profession could have made his instructors and peers view him as unfit to be a nurse.
Harassment and mobbing were factors in the post-office shootings, if the documentary, Going Postal Again, is correct. When high speed sorting machines came into the postal service, 100,000 people were to be out of a job. Instead of layoffs, management in the service found other ways to get rid of workers: for example, harsh discipline designed at reducing the workforce quickly. This resulted in increased fights and violent assaults on managers by employees in postal offices across the US. The general feeling among postal workers was that management would pick at any minor problem and make it in to a big issue just to have a reason to fire someone. They literally tried to drive people out of their jobs. This created a toxic environment filled with tension and uncertainty. Postal workers in Royal Oak, where McIlvane shot four of his managers described feelings of anger towards management even after the tragedy. “They pushed people to the brink. They treated people like scum,” said one of McIlvane’s coworkers in an interview. The documentary also revealed that workers had defaced the names of two managers who died on a memorial outside the office. Clearly there were tension and toxic relations both before and after the shootings at Royal Oak.
How Workplace Homicide is Portrayed in Retrospect
The immediate response to the OC Transpo murders by management, union reps and politicians, was to paint a picture of a disturbed maniac whose inexplicable rampage came out of nowhere and cost four innocent victims their lives. The head of the union stated “We’re going to look for causes but really, I don’t think we’re really going to find a cause, this individual was just sick.” One government official in Ottawa said “Four innocent citizens of this community were killed by a lone gunman…. No law or social system could have predicted or prevented what took place and there are no guarantees that such an incident will not occur again.” (Quotations from Hout 2004).
The reaction to the shootings at the University of Arizona was similar. In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Smallwood (2002) described a memorial held at the school for the teachers Flores killed:
The response to shootings by postal workers on the part of management often involves denouncing the shooter as a crazy individual. One manager from Royal Oak stated: “You’re trying to make rational sense out of an irrational act and a person as bent on destruction as Mr McIlvane was, he’s gonna achieve his goal” (quoted in Going Postal Again).
This essay is not intended to take sides in the nature-vs.-nurture debate. Some killers are sadistic individuals with no regard for human life, and no amount of socialization could change their violent personalities. Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and Paul Bernardo perfectly fit the profile of a psychopath. Although the evidence reviewed above on certain workplace murders is in support of situational rather than dispositional factors, the bottom line is that anyone who takes his or her own life, especially if others are also intentionally killed, must be deeply disturbed. Mass murders like those discussed here are extremely rare, while rationalization, job insecurity, harassment and mobbing are much less rare. Thus I cannot make the argument that any individual facing the conditions that Flores or Lebrun faced would react in the same way they did. I accept that in order for these people to feel justified in killing their supervisors and coworkers, they must have been suffering from very serious psychological problems. There is a chance that these individuals were simply set on destroying others and would have done so even had they not been mobbed at work.
Yet, to blame these cases of workplace homicide solely on the psychological problems of the assailants lifts the blame from the managers who allowed a toxic workplace to arise and persist. Even though those who react violently to mobbing are a small minority, and even if the real cause of such violence is the combination of workplace problems with the violent disposition of certain individuals, the fact is, if there had not been a toxic workplace, the violence would not likely have occurred. “Going postal” type incidents can be prevented if leaders are aware of the conditions under which mobbing occurs, and do everything they can to stop mobbing behaviour. If managers at OC Transpo had stepped in and put an end to Lebrun’s harassment, he probably would have led a peaceful life.
In an interview for the 2006 documentary Going
Postal Again, one of McIlvane’s former coworkers discussed
a statement fifteen or so other workers released after the shooting, explaining
that regardless of McIlvane’s personal problems, management needed
to make serious changes in how workers were treated. “You can’t
just keep pressuring people and think that something won’t happen
because everybody has weaknesses and if you push hard enough somebody
has to crack… and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was somebody
with the most problems.”
The bottom line is simple. Even though individuals who react with extreme violence to toxic work environments probably or certainly have serious psychological problems, we still need to address the fact that these people were responding to conditions which provoked a response. Their actions, though gruesome, destructive, and extremely wrong, were still a rational response to what they perceived as a workplace bent on destroying them. It is important to address the issues of mobbing and toxic work environments in order to hopefully prevent these incidents from repeating themselves. If we ignore the true causes of workplace homicide, then we are allowing tragedies like those at OC Transpo, the University of Arizona, and in the United States postal service to keep happening.
Any instance when someone’s life is cut short is unfortunate. What is more unfortunate is when people die because of situations that could have been prevented. If we turn a blind eye to toxic relationships at work because we fear being disrespectful to the dead, we are actually doing them an injustice. If positive changes come out of workplace tragedies, then at least those who died did not die in vain. At least we can have some hope that by addressing the complexities behind murders in the workplace, lives can be saved in the future.
Branswell, Brenda, 1999. “Ottawa Massacre,” from Maclean’s Magazine.
John M., 2002. “Student Kills 3 Instructors and Himself at U. of
Arizona” The New York Times (October 29, 2002).
Flores, Robert, 2002. “Communication from the Dead.”
Hout, Anton, 2004. “Workplace Violence: Why it Happens. Why it will Continue.” mobbing.ca
Middleman Thomas, Irene,1997. “Going Postal: Myth or Reality?” Postal Life Vol. 29 No. 1.
Montaldo, Charles “It’s Official: ‘Going Postal’ is Epidemic,” about.com
Roman, Karina, 2006. Dying for a Job, CBC Radio, April 25 boadcast: “The Challenge of Changing workplace culture.”
Smallwood, Scott, 2002. “The Deadly Risk of Giving an F,” Chronicle of Higher Education.
Westhues, Kenneth, 2006. Remedy and Prevention of Mobbing in Higher Education, Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen.
Steve and Kazmi Torii, 2006. Going Postal Again? Documentary