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?

Over the next few weeks, many will focus on the gunman’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 Pearson state, “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.

Unfortunately, in many cases the worse thing the employee can do is report the abuse to
an internal resource. 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 that Downing 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 producers and 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, teambuilding,
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.”

Summary:

The recent outbreak of deadly workplace violence is alarming, but is it really
shocking? The workplace has become more toxic. An unhealthy work environment
coupled with the stresses of life can create a perfect storm of emotions that can have
deadly consequences. Organizations have a great opportunity to fix these systemic
practices but they must be taken seriously.

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