Human Capital & Careers

At Close Range

When it comes to worker relations, new economy employers should be worried -- very worried.
John EdwardsAugust 15, 2001

Apparently, managers at Edgewater Technology didn’t get overly concerned in December when employee Michael McDermott berated workers in the company’s accounting department. McDermott, a software engineer and tester at the Wakefield, Mass.-based ecommerce consultancy and systems integrator, was reportedly livid about a potential garnishment of his wages by the IRS.

Published reports indicate McDermott was especially upset that the accounting department seemed unwilling to fight the IRS order. Police say a week after the tirade, an enraged McDermott walked into the Edgewater office toting a shotgun –and mowed down seven of his co-workers, including several in the accounting department.

According to government statistics, such workplace homicides are relatively rare: Just 645 job-related murders in 1999. But given the nasty downturn in the economy, employee violence could become more common.

Some observers believe technology companies may be at higher risk. Tech and dotcom employees who were coddled and adored during the go-go days of early 2000 may be less than thrilled with the newest new economy — layoffs, worthless stock options, and closer supervision by bosses. At the least, workers who think they’ve been misled or put-upon may file lawsuits, start rumors on chat boards, or commit other acts of corporate sabotage. Says Sally J. McDonald, a labor and employment attorney at law firm Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe: ”Broken promises, long hours, and disrespectful treatment are among the leading causes of employee discontent.”

One thing that tends to get new-economy employers into trouble with workers is loose hiring practices, especially verbal contracts. ”You think you’re saying one thing; the employee interprets it another way,” says McDonald. ”The next thing, you’re in court.” To avoid problems, she advises employers to put all policies in writing. ”If it’s written out and agreed to by both parties,” she says, ”it’s hard to dispute.”

Stephen Paskoff, president of Employment Learning Innovations, which provides workplace legal training services, believes employee assistance programs should be used to help workers handle personal or work-related problems. He also recommends checking candidates’ references and establishing a new-hire probation period to weed out malcontents. Ultimately, though, companies must train managers to recognize the warning signs of employee anger — and to act quickly. ”Sometimes, a supervisor will want to think over a threat for a day or two,” notes McDonald. ”That’s not a good idea. The employee may decide to act quickly and drastically.” Simple as it sounds, good listening skills could save lives. ”Listen hard to your employees,” says Paskoff, ”and take whatever they say at face value.”