Experts: Many factors can contribute to workplace violence

Amanda Cuda, Staff Writer, CT Post
Published: 10:59 p.m., Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Though it's impossible to know exactly why Omar Thornton walked into Hartford Distributors Inc. in Manchester Tuesday morning and went on a shooting rampage, experts said there are a variety of factors that can contribute to workplace violence.

Thornton, a warehouse driver about to lose his job at the company, killed eight people before committing suicide. After his death, reports surfaced that Thornton, who was black, had complained of racial harassment and that he had been caught on video stealing beer.

This isn't the first time Connecticut has been the site of horrific workplace violence. In March 1998, Connecticut Lottery employee Matt Beck went on a similar rampage, killing four of his supervisors, then himself. Nationwide, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that roughly 2 million American workers are victims of workplace violence every year.

Experts said those who resort to violence of this sort are often set off by a mixture of personal and societal issues. "Certainly, there are environmental factors and individual factors (to these sort of incidents)," Dr. Sheila Cooperman, vice chairwoman of the department of psychiatry at St. Vincent's Behavioral Health Services in Westport.

On the environmental side, nearly everything that happens in this day and age has the ongoing economic crisis as a backdrop, Cooperman said. "Clearly, these are very difficult economic times," she said. "The economy is one of the top issues that we talk about every day."

Other factors can include the pressure that society places on us to succeed, said Henry Schissler, associate professor of sociology at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport. "We're a very competitive culture," he said. "A lot of people who don't achieve the level of success that they thought they would can become bitter."

Yet Schissler, Cooperman and others believe that workplace violence is often caused by more than societal pressure. Though Thornton was, presumably, about to lose his job, that likely wasn't wholly responsible for his attack, said Stuart Sidle, an industrial organizational psychologist and chairman of the psychology department at the University of New Haven in West Haven.

"Most people who get laid off don't commit violence," Sidle said. "They don't do anything, usually because they feel it's fair or they believe it isn't personal."

Those who lash out against co-workers or superiors often feel provoked or singled out for some reason, he said. Schissler agreed that those who act out against those they work with often have the perception that the world -- or at least their workplace -- is against them. Someone inclined toward a violent outburst might be particularly sensitive to mistreatment or slights in the workplace, Schissler said. "They might perceive it as `They hate me' or `They're after me for some other reason.' "

All those interviewed for this article said that, ultimately, it's impossible to know why someone does something like this without knowing the individual personally. But all agreed that incidents like this are rare, and most people don't respond to workplace stresses with gunfire. "It's a really unique person," Sidle said.