The recent tragedy at a lower Manhattan federal building where a former employee shot and killed a guard before taking his own life was shocking; it was horrendous, but was it really surprising?The gunman, Mr. Kevin Downing was reportedly fired for reporting what he viewed as inexcusable taxpayer waste. Instead of being lauded as a hero, he was fired, and his reputation and career-prospects were ruined.
Over the next few weeks, many will focus on the Downing’s recent accident and his subsequent medications. Others will question whether he suffered from a mental illness. But are those the real issues?As a Corporate Relationship Expert, organizations bring me in to fix their people problems. From power hungry bosses who terrorize whole departments, to managers who have had their feelings hurt and exact their revenge, to entire offices that show signs of PTSD, I have seen it all. And many who think they are the only ones going through it, or put the blame for what’s happening to them solely on themselves, fail to realize that they are in fact part of a growing trend.
In their U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, the Workplace Bullying Institute determined that 27% of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work and another 21% have witnessed it. That would mean that nearly half of American workers have been personally exposed to workplace bullying. Beyond that, the study reveals that 72% of workers are aware that workplace bullying occurs. Other studies reveal similar if not more alarming results. In the Harvard Business Review article “The Price of Incivility,”Christine Porath and Christine Pearsonstate, “In 2011 half of surveyed employees,said they were treated rudely at least once a week—up from a quarter in 1998.” Bullying and workplace abuse have reached epidemic proportions in the workplace.
Whether motivated by retaliation, or a desire for control and dominance, those in positions of power are feeling more freedom to mistreat workers, and are facing less accountability and consequences for doing so. Whistle blower regulations, NO FEAR acts, harassment laws, and a growing emphasis on bullying are of no value unless they are actually enforced and that enforcement must begin internally, within the organization. I have personally witnessed on numerous occasions, HR managers and EEO directors publicly state that their role is to protect management. More importantly, I have seen employees naively go to their HR department, unions or whoever is supposed to be the group that you report concerns, looking for help and safety only to have their concern reported back to there supervisor (often the one whom the complaint is about) with no action taken in regards to the concern.
The results of such actions are horrific. Often the victim is subjected to greater hostility and a more caustic work environment.Very rarely is anything done about the actual charges. In fact, the workplace Bullying Institute says that 77.7% of the time, the reason the bullying stops is because the victim quits or is fired. With this being the reality, it’s no wonder that the problem is getting worse.
Many associates and friends were shocked and said there were no warning signs that Downing would commit a violent act. The truth is that Downing was under a great deal of stress outside of his ongoing legal battle with his former employer. New Jersey representative Bill Pascrell Jr.mentioned thatDowning had endured a string of misfortunes as his live-in fiancé died of breast cancer, his house was in foreclosure and he suffered health problems after a car accident.I have spoken to many workers who were at their breaking point. The stress of what they perceived as endless attacks from their boss along with the challenges of life had affected their mental as well as physical health to the point that they had become desperate for relief as well as justice or revenge.
This dynamic is preventable and the fix is not complicated. First, companies need to take reports of retaliation, abuse, harassment, and bullying seriously. It can’t be just lip service or something that high producersand those who are well liked by upper management are exempt from.The organizations I’ve seen who draw real boundaries and enforce them,see a significant reduction in the number of complaints as well as an increase in morale. Second, organizations must do a better job of selecting their managers and supervisors. No longer can companies believe that being a high producer qualifies someone to lead people. These two things require completely different skillsets.
When organizations take into consideration things like resiliency, emotional intelligence, empathy, vision and all around people skills, instead of just rewarding high performers with position they are not qualified for, everyone benefits. Third, companies must invest in training. Not just “hard skill” training but training on interpersonal skills. There is an art and a science to leadership. One organization I work with now requires all new and potential managers to receive training on skills such as leadership, team building, diversity, innovation and conflict resolution. The results have been phenomenal with many of the new managers reporting better performance and fewer complaints than the more seasoned but untrained managers.
Now, let me be clear, I am in no way condoning or supporting Mr. Downing’s actions. In fact, regardless of how one may choose to interpret or misinterpret this article, I’m not trying to justify his actions. His actions are reprehensible. But are they really that surprising? Don’t we all know people at work who are potential victims of violence because they toyed with the lives of other without any regard for the consequence? With the abundance of abuse present in our workplace is it really that shocking?
Last year while conducting a workshop one of attendees explained her reasoning for not attending an emergency preparedness workshop being presented in her office. When her boss asked her,”don’t you want to know what to do if someone comes into the building with a gun?” Her response was, “If someone comes into the building with a gun, I already know what to do: hide under my desk and stay as far away as possible from you. They’re not coming for me, they’re coming for you.”