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Going Postal and Beyond Dynamics Triggering Workplace Violence

November 1, 1999
Related Topics: Workplace Violence, Safety and Workplace Violence, Featured Article
In the wake of the Atlanta day-trader shootings, a mental-health professional sent an e-mail to me about dealing with the aftereffects. As I was mulling over the question, I had to place cause before effect. Memories were stirred of stress and critical incident consulting work with the U.S. Postal Service, and other federal agencies and corporations. And before jumping to conclusions, the first two incidents on the list involved postal employees being robbed and attacked by non-postal aggressors:

  1. A carrier on a delivery route was held up at knifepoint.
  2. A female warehouse worker was raped in an employee parking lot.
  3. A supervisor received telephone death threats (perhaps involving a jealous triangle with the boyfriend of an another employee).
  4. A postal employee, a former Green Beret, made threats in his psychiatrist's office to kill two fellow workers for being "slackers."

Another critical incident intervention was with bereaved private sector staff after an employee who, under the influence of alcohol and depressed over the breakup of an unhappy relationship, wound up driving her car into a tree, killing herself instantaneously.

And then there was a blue-collar government division in a white-collar world, cast off by their agency as part of a lean-and-mean restructuring. The group was relegated to the basement of a huge federal agency, drifting, marking time, not sure where and when (or if) they would permanently wash up. Not surprisingly, during this period of uncertain survival, all of them were on the edge.

Racial tensions flared: Some white employees pulled up Ku Klux Klan Web sites; some black employees on cassettes played speeches of Louis Farrakhan. Grievance procedures were escalating. A manager in the diversity office finally realized that the government was hemorrhaging money in this administrative Armageddon. Was human blood next?

Key Hazardous Workplace Issues
Some questions must be reckoned with: Are there incidence-prone work environments? Is there a violence-prone personality profile? And what steps can managers and all employees take to reduce the numbers of violent incidents?

In this first component, "Top Ten Postal Pressure Points," let me grapple with the most frequently asked question when people discover my critical incident specialist background: Why is there so much violence in the postal service? (I was a postal stress and violence prevention consultant from the early to mid-1990s.) Actually, I don't know if statistically there is more violence in the U.S. Postal Service than in other large companies or federal agencies.

Most folks don't realize that the Postal Service, apart from the Defense Department as a whole, is the largest employer in the United States (if not the world). As of a couple of years ago, there were about 800,000 postal employees. In light of the numbers, periodic incidents of violence are not that surprising. Also, because almost all U.S. residents use and depend on the USPS, I suspect there's a greater sense of personal identity (if not perceived vulnerability) with postal shootings.

Still, with these conditions and caveats in mind, what are critical factors that contribute to a hazardous, occasionally lethal, work environment for postal employees? And while focusing on a predisposition for "going postal," none should be smug. A number of these dynamics exist in a myriad of work settings.

While the problem has a blue-collar tint, the white-collar world also needs to pay heed. No matter the color, these dysfunctional workplaces both overtly drain and frustrate employees and generate a smoldering background. A seemingly trivial event can set off a chronically stressed, troubled individual.

Of course, some folks are ready to go even in the best of environments. The numbers of "the working wounded" from all walks of life is truly troubling.

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