Some employees react violently to dismissal

FATAL FIRINGS

March 16, 1992|By Susan Pack | Susan Pack,Knight-Ridder News Service

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Take this job and shove it?

Sometimes it's: Take this job away from me and die.

That was the message delivered in late January when a fired General Dynamics worker allegedly killed his union representative and wounded his former supervisor.

It also was the threat allegedly made a few days later by a laid-off Douglas Aircraft Co. worker in Long Beach.

"He was frustrated with the company, frustrated with the union," says Floyd Sparks, benefits representative at United Auto Workers Local 148, which represents many of the Douglas workers. "He was threatening to go home and get a shotgun and come back in the plant and start shooting."

Mr. Sparks says he was able to calm the man down, but the potential for violence remains. "I see tremendous frustration levels," he says.

As concern about violence in the workplace mounts, corporate executives throughout the United States have contacted the FBI, and some managers are asking security consultants how to handle employees who have clocked out for the last time. General Dynamics recently announced it was installing metal detectors at rooms where grievance hearings are held.

"We've seen an increase in people asking specifically about these kinds of issues," says Steve Kaufer, president of Inter/Action Associates Inc., a Palm Springs, Calif., security consulting firm.

"In the past, they were more interested in protecting property than lives. We're seeing that changing."

It's only natural that violence spills into the workplace, especially a shrinking workplace.

"It's brought our entire society to a boiling point," says Mr. Sparks, who has seen more than 15,000 local Douglas workers lose their jobs during the past two years. "This is a nationwide epidemic of job loss. Where are we going to find hope?"

Laid-off Douglas workers feel abandoned, he says. No longer can they find work at other aerospace plants. Those who migrated to California may have to go back home.

But company spokesman Don Hanson says laid-off employees receive 60 days' notice and are offered comprehensive benefits.

"When somebody is notified of a layoff, the instructions are quite clear, you are supposed to do it in the gentlest way you can," Mr. Hanson says. "There's always a one-on-one talk with the employee, which disarms hostility."

During their final 60 days, employees are given time off for job interviews, Mr. Hanson says. The company also helps support a center that offers computerized job listings and other employment assistance.

General Dynamics also follows a "long, deliberate procedure" before dismissing employees, says company spokeswoman Julie Andrews. Before he was fired for poor attendance, the man accused of gunning down his supervisor and union representative was given several warnings, she says.

Counseling is available to troubled employees, she says, and extra counselors were called in after the shooting. The plant's security officers also began "looking a little more vigilantly at items being carried in."

Despite the recent decision to install metal detectors at grievance hearing rooms, General Dynamics has no plans to put them at every gate, Ms. Andrews says. "We're a factory and not a fortress."

The U.S. Postal Service, shaken by at least seven shootings in the past decade, has a similar philosophy. "We can turn the post office into a prison, but then we can't serve our customers," says spokesman Lou Eberhardt.

Instead, the Postal Service has taken other steps to defuse potential violence. Employees can report threats of violence on a national hot line, which receives 15 to 20 calls a day. If violence appears imminent, the postal inspection service is called in, Mr. Eberhardt says.

All supervisors receive human relations training, he says, and if a supervisor is concerned about an employee's behavior, a "fitness for duty" exam can be required.

Managers also track workers who have been or are about to be fired.

-- It's difficult to screen out violent job applicants, he says. Previous employers, wary of lawsuits, are reluctant to provide damaging information. "You can't compromise somebody's privacy," he says. And while counseling is available, it isn't mandatory.

"You can offer people help," Mr. Eberhardt says. "You can't cram it down their throats."

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