Thursday, April 12, 2007

Workplace Violence: Be Careful Out There

On April 9th - a Monday morning - in a terrible workplace incident, Anthony LaCalamita, a recently-fired employee of a Michigan accounting firm, returned to work. Apparently bent on avenging his firing, LaCalamita shot three people, critically wounding two of the firm's managers (his presumed targets) and killing a 67 year old retired secretary who was pitching in as receptionist during the busy tax season.

It is hard to imagine the horror for this woman's family, for the two men shot, and for all of the employees of Gordon Advisors.

Sure, we've all heard (and maybe even made) ghoulish remarks about employees "going postal", but we take for granted that we're safe at work - especially those of us who are in non-dangerous, white collar professions. Like accounting.

Personally, the only violence I've ever witnessed as work was when one hothead, ticked off that we'd made an offer to someone he didn't want to hire, put his fist through the wall. (We hung a picture over it.) The hire of his objection turned out to be an incredibly fine employee (and a great friend of mine.) The hothead? He did alright by himself, and went on to become president of a software company. In retrospect, this "incident" has become an amusing story, a "remember the time...."

Personally, I have never felt physically threatened at work - other than that one time an off-kilter colleague, ticked off that I'd gotten a very small promotion he felt entitled to, fired off an anonymous e-mail screed attacking 'women who got ahead because of their personality," rather than their technical prowess.

Sorry, pal, EQ trumps IQ. And that promotion? It was more of a faux-motion: title change, small shift in responsibility, no increase in pay - you were still making more than I was, you jerk.

I wasn't frightened. Not really. Other than for that second or two when I entertained the thought that you just might be crazy enough to do me some harm...

So, personally, I haven't had much fear. But I have - perhaps being paranoiac - been fearful for others.

I worked for many years at a small software company where, at one point, we hired a woman as an administrative assistant who did not - to put it mildly - work out. While I had recommended not hiring "Martha", intuiting that she would not be a good "fit" for the person she would be supporting, I in no way could have predicted just how poor a fit she would be.

And lest I appear to be giving myself too much credit for recommending against Martha's hire, what I missed entirely during the interview process was that she was deeply disturbed. As in seriously mentally ill.

Shortly after she began working with us, Martha admitted to me that she had left some things off of her resume - namely, her engineering degree from a prestigious university - so that she wouldn't raise any eyebrows about applying for a "lowly" administrative job. I felt considerable sympathy for her - she told me that she had suffered from a nervous breakdown and was just recovering. There were other details of her personal life that she revealed to me that further caused me to feel sympathetic - but which also caused me to see that things were not likely to work out for her with us.

They didn't.

All the sympathy in the world couldn't change the fact that Martha had to go.

On the day that she was fired - which was done as deftly and sympathetically as could be done by "amateurs": we did not even have a real HR person in our very small company at that point, and God knows none of us were trained psychologists - I was truly fearful that Martha might do something erratic. Violent, even. (This may be a case of a false memory from a dozen years ago, but I've somehow convinced myself that at one point she had once mentioned something to do with a gun.)

I shared my misgivings with her boss, "Paul", the logical target in Martha went, errrr, postal. I warned him that he needed to be careful: Martha knew where he lived.

Paul assured me he'd be on the alert.

As it turned out, Martha went quietly.

What a relief.

When I worked at Genuity, where we had wholesale, quarterly lay-offs as we entered our death spiral, security was always increased for lay-off day. Fortunately, I had nothing to fear from the people on my team. Not that the people whose names I'd put on lay-off lists weren't upset, or out-and-out angry with me. But I never felt at all at risk.

But there was a lot of anger roiling around out there.

In bulletin boards and chat rooms - precursors to today's blogs - an occasional threat aimed at a couple of our executives would pop up.

Idle trash-talk in the anonymity of the Internet? Real threats? Who knew?

Whether they were "benign" or not, I found these comments deeply disturbing.People had a right to be upset, annoyed, angry, mad-as-hell. They were losing their jobs. And some of them were also losing their shirts. Certainly if they had invested heavily in our tortured, failed IPO they were. (Unless they'd been canny enough to short the stock.)

But translating their losses into death threats on Joe Farina and Paul Gudonis?


I thought of all this as I read the accounts of the Michigan shooting.

No doubt it will all come out, but I don't know why Anthony LaCalamita was fired. Or how he was fired. Or what else was going on in his tortured soul that caused him to shoot up his former place of work.

Was he fired in a cruel manner?

Probably not.

Midwest nice and all that aside, most people, when they have to fire or lay someone off, behave decently and are well-intentioned. Sure, we may be awkward and clumsy when it comes to giving someone the bad news, and God knows it's never pleasant, but few people actually take any pleasure in the act. (I do know of at least one who did: He laid off a colleague by phone while the colleague was in the newborn ICU unit with his wife and sick just-born baby. Afterwards, the prince among princes who'd done the firing was overheard telling someone how much he had enjoyed it.)

And few of us who make personnel decisions, however sympathetic and decent we might want to be, aren't really prepared to gauge how someone will react to the bad news. We don't know everything that's going on in their professional lives. Let alone in their personal lives. Let alone in their heads.

Madeline Kafoury is the name of the woman who got in the way of Anthony LaCalamita's anger and craziness. Talk about an innocent bystander.

Of course I may have her all wrong, but it's easy for me to imagine Madeline's presence in the office. Kind heart. Yenta. Mother hen. The one who knew where everything was stored, and where everyone was. The only person who ever washed the coffee pots out. The one who every once in a while brought in her famous crumb cake, the one who could tell when someone was pregnant even before she announced, the one with the sympathetic cluck and a hand pat. The one who knew the names of everyone's kids, who liked - maybe even loved - all of the people in the office, and who made the office feel like home.

No, I didn't know Madeline Kafourey, but I've just pretty much described Lena, who was the receptionist at Softbridge, a Gordon Advisors-sized software company where I worked for many years. We would have been devastated if anything like this had happened to Lena.

The day after the shooting, the Gordon Advisors home page referred to Madeline Kafoury as "our beloved."

And all she was doing was pitching in the help during the busy season, picking up a little pin money, and sustaining the ties she'd made over twenty-years with the firm.


The two managers who were wounded are innocent, too. However professionally, sympathetically, ineptly, brutally, gently, or whateverly they handled LaCalamita's termination, they were no doubt just trying to do what was best for their company.

You come to work thinking it's crunch time for getting all those tax returns done. Then something like this happens.

No guarantees in life. No 100% safety anywhere.

I don't imagine that Gordon Advisors will be getting back to "normal" anytime soon. If they ever do.

When we go into the office in the morning, we do so trusting that we'll be safe there. Maybe not from professional upsets and personal knocks, but physically safe.

For the folks at Gordon Advisors, that trust disappeared in the split second it took from Anthony LaCalamita to take Madeline Kafourey's life.

My sympathies to them all.

1 comment:

Charles H. Green said...


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