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Firms look for tripwires of worker violence

Three years ago, the personnel managers at Weyerhauser Co. noticed an increase in phone calls about potential workplace violence - everything from workers threatening to kill themselves to doing away with their managers.

This led them to teach all 34,000 employees and managers how to spot early-warning signs of troubled and potentially violent employees. Today, the company says the number of calls has "dramatically" decreased as a result.

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"We've become a lot more sensitive," says Bob Jacobsen, who manages employee-aid programs at the Tacoma, Wash., forest-products firm. "It's far less likely someone will wave off a warning sign."

Weyerhauser is one of a growing number of companies around the United States that have instituted the psychological equivalent of smoke detectors to identify and help stressed and emotionally troubled employees.

Such programs are crucial in preventing incidents of workplace violence, such as Tuesday's tragedy in Honolulu, experts say. Seven people died in one of the nation's worst workplace killings when an employee walked into a Xerox Corp. office building and opened fire. "There usually are warning signs," says Steve Kaufer, cofounder of the Workplace Violence Research Institute in Palm Springs, Calif. "Someone doesn't usually go from zero to 60 and just start shooting."

Despite the horrific and high-profile nature of recent workplace killings, experts say that office hallways haven't become the new mean streets of America.

"There is no evidence that workplace violence has become more common," says Barry Glassner, a professor at the University of Southern California and author of "The Culture of Fear." He cautions against christening several isolated tragedies as a trend, noting that statistics show violence in the workplace - and everywhere - dropping steadily. For example, violent incidents at work fell 7 percent in 1997.

But while companies may not need to break out the bulletproof glass, violence is not something that can be ignored. Homicide is the leading cause of death for women at work, and the second-largest cause for men. Excluding murder, 2 million incidents of violence are reported at work each year - ranging from fistfights to rape.

"The biggest single cause of workplace violence ... is management denial," says Lynne McClure of McClure Associates Inc. in Phoenix and author of "Risky Business."

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She says in the case of multiple shootings three factors are at work: a high-risk employee, a company whose policies are - however inadvertently - feeding the destructive impulses, and a "last-straw incident" that triggers the violence. While triggers can range from a paranoid delusion to losing a spouse, experts say much of the time a firing proves to be the tinder. In the Honolulu incident, for instance, alleged gunman Byran Uyesugi was reportedly on the verge of losing his job.

In addition, in an era of downsizing and long work weeks, stress can exacerbate violent behavior. For instance, if someone indulges in escapism, such as through drug abuse, a workaholic culture where employees take pills to stay awake can feed the problem. Or if an employee's performance suddenly declines or the individual starts exhibiting flamboyant behavior, an office environment steeped in a "good ol' employee culture" may overlook the seriousness of the problem and thus perpetuate it.

Many corporations no longer ignore these stresses and strains. When firing employees, they have to show sensitivity.

"You just don't terminate an employee with nothing to help them," says Jay Supnick of Rochester, N.Y.-based Law Enforcement Psychological Associates. "You have to give them warning and something to fall back on."

Yet most professional crisis managers stress it's equally important that a company spend more time screening employees before they hire them. "We used to think it was too intrusive. Now we see it as a good investment," says Dr. Supnick.

Still, some experts argue background checks are not terribly effective in preventing outbreaks of violence. The fact is, "the stress is being created by the job itself," says Richard Dennenberg, head of Workplace Solutions in Red Hook, N.Y.

Dr. McClure also points out that, in cases of multiple homicide, the employee has usually been with the company for years before becoming violent.

Once a company hires an employee, it needs to be alert for possible warning signs. At Weyerhauser, employees are taught to look for different signs that may lead to violence. For example, they might notice a worker who is belligerent, arguing all the time, or occasionally making a threat.

It's not clear why Xerox did not anticipate problems with Mr. Uyesugi, an employee for 15 years. According to press reports, Uyesugi had a collection of 17 guns. "Fascination with firearms is a big warning sign," says Supnick.

Xerox says it has trained 500 managers and supervisors on workplace violence in the past two years. But spokeswoman Christa Carone says it's not clear if the Hawaii managers have been through the program.

While many firms have set up programs to prevent outbursts, more vigilance is needed. "Each one of these kinds of events brings home that we are not doing enough yet," says John Challenger of Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray, & Christmas.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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