December 28, 2000
BOSTON (Boston Globe) — Details of the life of Michael McDermott, the man authorities say gunned down seven of his co-workers at Edgewater Technology in Massachusetts Tuesday, will emerge over the next several days. But workplace and violence specialists say they know how most of the blanks will probably be filled already.
``It's a pretty predictable profile,'' said Jack Levin, director of Northeastern University's Center on Violence. ``If you look at these incidents, you find a lot of similar things.''
For starters, Levin was not surprised to learn that McDermott, 42, is white and middle-aged. He also knew how to use, and had access to, automatic weapons.
What remains to be seen is whether he fits the psychological profile. Workplace killers usually believe that they should have reached a pinnacle of their careers, Levin said, only to find themselves sliding back. As frustration and depression mounts, they often have no friends or family to turn to for help. Finally, an incident at work triggers a reaction, and instead of blaming themselves for their trouble, they blame others - often, but not always, the victims.
Another constant in work-related homicides is the debate afterward as to how further incidents can be prevented. Workplace homicide is not rare. It's the leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the United States, with nearly 1,000 murders occurring each year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Of the 860 workplace homicides committed in 1997, seven percent were by current and former co-workers, according to the BLS and other government statistics.
Over the years, many of the incidents have grabbed national headlines. In March 1998, a Connecticut Lottery Corp. accountant involved in a pay dispute killed four people and then himself in Newington, Conn. Last year, a frustrated investor killed nine and wounded 13 at two brokerage firms in Atlanta before he killed himself.
Two industrial psychologists at the University of Tennessee say they have come up with a method of screening potentially violent employees: a test designed to weed out likely candidates to workplace violence in the hiring process.
``Typically, this is not a nice person just having a bad day,'' said Tennessee professor Michael McIntyre. ``They didn't wake up on the wrong side of the bed. They have a certain mindset, a pattern of thinking.''
McIntyre and partner Larry James have come up with a psychological test that they say gives employers an accurate indication of whether someone they are about to hire has an aggressive mindset and approach to situations they are involved in.
Instead of asking people whether they get into fights often or if they think of themselves as being aggressive, the test lays out situations and asks them to choose between two reactions: one that an aggressive person would pick, and another that a nonaggressive person would select.
An example question: Twenty years ago, American car makers lost business to Japanese car makers because consumers felt that Japanese cars were better built. An aggressive person would pick the response that says U.S. carmakers built low-quality cars so they could make more money selling replacement parts. A nonaggressive person's reaction would be that Japanese carmakers knew more about building high-quality cars.
``An aggressive person strongly believes that his answer is not only correct but that the other one so is so wrong that the person who answers that way must be a fool,'' McIntyre said. ``It works like this every time.
``These people have a cognitive preparedness to aggression. They've got these structures in place to justify aggressive behavior. They don't think they are crazy. They just think they're right.''
McIntyre and his partner are testing the test at a dozen or so companies around the country, including a United Postal Service location in Chicago. A UPS spokesman said the company was evaluating its effectiveness.
Steve Kaufer, co-founder of the Workplace Violence Research Institute, suggests companies also take a proactive approach to workplace violence. For starters, employees should be trained to notice a chance in behavior. The slightest changes - coming late to work, being snippy about a minor matter - can suggest trouble.
The next step is not to punish that behavior.
``What companies should do is go to these employees and ask them if something is going on,'' Kaufer said. ``They should ask if there's something the company can do to help.''
For Northeastern's Levin, it's not that easy. While predicting the profile of people who commit workplace violence comes as a snap for him and others, actually stopping them is a completely different matter.
``It's the problem of false positives,'' Levin said. ``There are plenty of people in society who share many of these traits, but they don't go and kill anyone. They move on to another job or another city.
``If we really wanted to stop this violence, we'd have to make armed camps out of our offices. We'd have to have close surveillance. Americans would not stand for that, and they shouldn't. We just have to live with these horrible incidents. It's the price we pay for our love affair with personal freedom.''
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