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Disgruntled employees - ticking time bombs?

Disgruntled Employees - Ticking Time Bombs?

IN DECEMBER 1987, DAVID A BURKE, a former USAir employee, boarded Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) flight 1771 departing Los Angeles for San Francisco with the intention of killing PSA executive Raymond Thompson. Burke believed Thompson was responsible for his firing from USAir, the parent company of PSA. While the plane was cruising above San Luis Obispo County, CA, Burke shot Thompson and the plane's pilot and copilot, causing the plane to crash. All 44 passengers died.

In June 1988, Sebron Flenaugh, a security officer at a Micropure Plant in California, opened fire on employees after expressing frustration with his job. Two workers died and four others were critically injured.

In February 1988, Richard W. Farley, a former employee of Electromagnetic Science Laboratory (ESL) in Sunnyvale, CA, shot and killed seven employees in the ESL plant. Four others were wounded. Farley's psychopathic obsession with a former coworker led to the shooting rampage. Farley had been terminated by ESL for sexually harassing the coworker.

In June 1991, Larry T. Hansel, a former electronics technician at Elgar Corporation in San Diego, reportedly entered the company headquarters with a bandolier of ammunition around his chest and carrying a 12-gauge shotgun. Allegedly his targets were the six company executives he believed were responsible for his being fired.

Police think the technician, who had worked for Elgar for three years, entered the firm by a rear entrance. Before entering, he placed three Molotov cocktails and a radio-controlled bomb outside the building. Two other bombs were positioned inside. The rear entrance apparently was not locked, and the firm did not employ security officers during the day.

News reports indicate that after triggering several of the radio-controlled fire bombs as a diversion, Hansel methodically searched for his targets. He had surveyed the building earlier that same day and discovered the whereabouts of his intended targets. Two company executives died from shotgun blasts.

Shortly before being fired, Hansel had been reprimanded for talking about John Merlin Taylor, the disgruntled Escondido, CA, postal worker who shot and killed his wife in 1989, then drove to the Orange Glen, CA, postal substation and killed two workers before finally killing himself.

These five tragic events occurred in one state in three and a half years. The exact number of homicides and assaults committed by unstable individuals against current or former coworkers or employers is not available from the Uniform Crime Reporting Section of the FBI. However, the incidents described above are believed to represent only a small percentage of the total number of like incidents occurring nationwide in the same period.

Preventing nightmarish incidents such as these is a formidable task for any business, military, or government entity. However, as in planning for other crises, such as fires, earthquakes, floods, toxic spills, bomb threats, and strikes, deterrents should be explored and reaction plans put in place.

"The type of aggression acted out in violent workplace episodes is similar to the violent acts carried out by one family member against another and can be symptomatic of paranoidal delusion or depression," says Dr. Robert C. Bransfield, associate director of psychiatry at the Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank, NJ.

Commenting on the report that prior to his firing Hansel had been talking about John Merlin Taylor's rampage, Bransfield notes, "A disturbed individual contemplating a violent act that he might not want to actually commit may give a warning much in the same manner that a person contemplating suicide may try to alert others to his intentions. He may be troubled by the fear that he intends to hurt someone and may be asking for someone to intervene. If the warning signs are ignored, the contemplated act may become reality."

The current thinking about an individual's violence potential is that a person first attempts to cope with situations in a mature manner. If these methods fail or if the person does not function on a higher level of maturity, a regression to lower levels of functioning may occur.

"Theoretically, a violent reaction to a situation is within anyone's potential, but it takes far more to provoke some than others," Bransfield says. "While it is possible to look at certain traits and determine who is at risk, it is difficult to isolate the one person out of 1,000 who will carry out the violent act."

The traits to look for include substance abuse, which has a disinhibiting effect on the individual; lack of impulse control under pressure; a history of violent episodes or criminal acts; paranoia; and narcissistic personality disorders. Bransfield notes that preemployment screening tests for mental stability help identify high-risk individuals.

Management should consider implementing a program that would sensitize all employees to emotional or mental behavior that suggests an employee may pose a threat to himself or herself or others. If such behavior is noticed, employees, supervisors, and managers should be trained to alert management so appropriate psychiatric resources can be employed.

The company should periodically remind employees of the program's existence and purpose. In some situations a psychiatrist should be retained and available for consultation.

Management should also take steps to soften the trauma associated with being fired. Such steps are particularly critical when an employee who has demonstrated emotional or mental instability has been fired. Bransfield observes that being fired from a job, like any other trauma, can trigger a flashback effect in which the act of being fired becomes symbolic of other issues in the person's life.

If a flashback occurs, the individual, in addition to reacting to the stress associated with the present situation, may also be reacting to what the present situation represents in his or her past. This phenomenon, most commonly observed in war veterans and victims of child abuse, is known as posttraumatic stress disorder.

A pretermination psychiatric interview to assess the individual's danger quotient may be necessary if past behavior suggests instability.

Troubled employees who are fired should be informed of the availability of residual medical benefits if any exist. Company-paid, post-employment psychiatric treatment may serve as a cushion to dissipate the fired employee's anger toward the company.

When an individual who has demonstrated unstable emotional or mental behavior in the past is fired and believed to be dangerous, the security force should be alerted and warning notices posted at security gates and building entrances. The local police should also be advised.

Bransfield cautions that the rule of thumb in dealing with a violence-prone person is to approach the individual either with a lack of intimidation or with overwhelming force - and never in an intimidating manner without sufficient resources to overcome resistance that may result.

All locks to which the employee had access should be changed and all badges, parking passes, and company property confiscated. The employee's friends, relatives, neighbors, and now former coworkers should be contacted and requested to keep management advised if a danger to company employees or property becomes apparent.

The image of a bandoliered, shotgun-toting, bomb-detonating, former employee stalking through the corridors of corporate headquarters is not a pretty one. Even more disconcerting is that the police reportedly did not respond to the Elgar Corporation shooting for 27 minutes after the switchboard operator notified 911.

As security manager, how would you have responded to these attacks? Do you and your officers have the training necessary to repel a deranged invader? What plans exist to handle crises before the police SWAT unit arrives? Do the incidents described in this article provide sufficient justification to arm security officers, or will arming officers who may themselves become mentally or emotionally unstable create a greater danger to other employees?

While responding to an attack by an armed invader seems too heavy a responsibility for a private security organization, the frequency of violent incidents dictates appropriate preparations. Perhaps some serious thought and planning needs to be given to this very real threat at your company.

James P. Graham, CPP, is president of James P. Graham and Associates, a security and investigative consulting firm in Agoura Hills, CA. He is a member of ASIS.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Graham, James P.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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