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“Going Postal” Identifying Factors
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 12/07/2009

Officegun “Going Postal” is a verbal identifying phrase so coined in the 80’s because of a rash of postal employees that engaged in workplace violence during that time period.

I have been requested to write this particular article in light of the recent shootings on the Army Base located in Texas. The question was posed to me in this format, “can we identify potential correctional employees that could go postal inside the facility?” Knowing, that we have several weapon available correctional posts that could give disgruntled correctional employees opportunity to go postal ay any time. So the question is this: Can potential aggressors be identified? Yes they can! In fact, 99% of workplace violence perpetrators exhibit clear warning signs before "going postal". Almost never, do disgruntled employees go off and just snap before they engage in workplace violence. Over 80% are male, usually white and over the age of 30.

Here's a scary thought: More than 23 percent of workers report feeling "angry all the time" at work, according to a Yale/Gallup study. With numbers like these, it's no wonder public violence is becoming more and more common in the United States. AAOHN's American Association of Occupational Health Nurses, study found that nearly 20 percent of the entire workforce claimed they have experienced an episode of workplace violence first-hand, yet the majority still does not know what to look for when it comes to determining potential offender characteristics.

I am going to give you a lot of information as it relates to characteristics and identifying factors of potential individuals who can demonstrate workplace aggression. This article is not a know all or tell all informational but should give you enough basic information to probe further and start asking questions about particular employees. Some characteristics include:
  • Inability to detach themselves from a job and move on.
  • Difficulty forming bonds with others throughout their lives.
  • Past threats, whether in the current workplace or a former one.
  • Belief that their employer is treating them unfairly or singling them out for some reason.
  • Recurrent psychological disturbances that isn’t significant enough to keep them from working--or being able to plan and carry out threats.
  • Blaming a specific individual for their problems.
  • Volatility, impulsivity, little emotional control and a failure to consider the consequences of their actions.
  • Oversensitivity to perceived insults or threats.
  • A tendency to use violence to solve problems and to threaten when they feel threatened.

Profile (of potentially violent employees):

The personal Web site for a radical American imam living in Yemen who had contact with two 9/11 hijackers praised Hasan as a hero. The posting Monday on the Web site for Anwar al Awlaki, who was a spiritual leader at two mosques where three 9/11 hijackers worshipped, said American Muslims who condemned the Fort Hood attack are hypocrites who have committed treason against their religion. Awlaki said the only way a Muslim can justify serving in the U.S. military is if he intends to "follow in the footsteps of men like Nidal." "Nidal Hassan is a hero," Awlaki said. "He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people."

First of all, the value of the Profile is that much of it can be learned about prospective employees during the hiring process through careful interviewing and background checks. Now here are the benefits of the profile itself; most potentially violent persons have a combination of at least several of the following six characteristics:
  1. Previous history of violence, usually toward those most vulnerable.
  2. Career frustration – either significant tenure on the same job, the employee who hates their job.
  3. Emotional problems, substance abuse, depression or low self-esteem.
  4. Loner, Harris and Klebold were only on the fringes of even the anti-clique "Trench Coat Mafia"; earning a living became progressively isolating.
  5. Antagonist relationships with others, fighting, disagreements, persecution – either as perpetrator or victim, often both.
  6. Some type of obsession; often with weapons and other acts of violence, but it can include romantic/sexual, zealotry, political, religious, racial, the job itself or even neatness and order compulsion.

It's important to bear in mind, however, that having any one (or even two) of these characteristics does not mean someone will become violent. There are millions of people frustrated in their careers, who suffer from depression or who are introverts who will never commit violence. It's the profile characteristics (especially violence history, antagonism and obsession) acting in combination and when coupled with the other factors in the formula that’s possibly lethal.

Let me ask you some questions supervisors:
  1. What are the spouse’s names of your employees?
  2. How many children do your employees have and what are their names?
  3. What sports do your employee’s children play?
  4. Do you know who is going through a divorce, or other life trauma?

If you can’t answer these questions or questions of similar origins then you don’t know your employees, do you? As a leader, you have to actually talk to your employee’s everyday. If you don’t know your employees then how can you know when there is something wrong? You have to make it your daily responsibility as a leader to get to know your employees, know about them and what is involved in their lives and what makes them tick. Only then can you know that there may be something wrong and bothering them.

It was posed to me from a propionate administrator responding to this article, “I have over a 1000 inmates and 350 to 400 employees it would be difficult to get to know each one like you want.” I know it would, but your attempt to complete this task should be made each day and eventually your presence, inquisitive nature and rewarding compliments will give you a working knowledge of problems, concerns and events that are occurring within your facility. Just because things are difficult should not be an excuse in completing your leadership responsibility.

Administrators don't need to be experts on violent behavior; but they should be in light of where they are working and recognition of potential violence is a positive trait. What is needed is a common- sense recognition that, "Something seems wrong here," plus a willingness to seek advice from those who are knowledgeable about different parts of the problem. Your employees need to know that employee on employee intimidation is totally unacceptable in the workplace, and that they should inform supervisors if they feel threatened for any reason. And you must give them reason to believe that you will respond in a mature, constructive way if they do share their concerns.

As the supervisor, you may find yourself shrinking from the task of counseling an employee because you feel afraid or intimidated of the person. All of these should make the alarm bells go off in your mind. At this stage it's appropriate to listen to "gut level" reactions. You're not making any decisions yet; you're just identifying a situation that needs to be explored. Document and inform administrators as soon as you find out.

Observable Warning Signs (often newly acquired negative traits): These are often newly acquired negative personality traits. Their value is that they can be detected in your day-to-dealings with current employees or non-employees with whom you have contact. Like the profile, which it parallels, there are six categories of warning signs:
  • Violent and Threatening Behavior, including hostility and approval of violence, Harris' Internet writings and the video he and Klebold created for a class-project.
  • Performance Problems, including difficulty concentrating and problems with attendance or tardiness.
  • Emotional Problems, such as those mentioned under the profile; also appearing to be under unusual stress or inappropriate emotional display.
  • "Strange" Behavior, becoming reclusive, deteriorating appearance/hygiene, erratic behavior. Visualize what we've come to know about Harris and Klebold.
  • Interpersonal Problems, numerous conflicts, hypersensitivity, resentment all as displayed by Harris and Klebold (and Barton, to those who knew him).
  • "At the end of his rope", indicators of impending suicide, has a plan to "solve all problems"
  • Just like the suicidal individual they may start giving away their belongings and contacting relatives and friends to rekindle or make up for past indiscretions.

No matter how good a job is done, it may not be possible to prevent all potentially violent situations. An employee can be driven to the point of violence by factors outside the agencies control. Or an employee's family members, romantic partners, or other associates may bring their own violent impulses into the employee's workplace. So managers also need to be prepared for a second level of involvement: early recognition of possible threats.

Before the wheels fall off the wagon:
  • First, anybody who says or hints that they might harm someone.
  • Suicidal individuals, people contemplating violence often tell others, directly or indirectly, about their plans. We cannot dismiss these threats of violence.
  • Anybody who expresses fear of somebody else. An employee may report being stalked by an ex-spouse, inmate or recent love affair, hopefully not an inmate. Employees may be afraid of someone who talks repeatedly about weapons in a way that seems strange to them.

Watching out for such signs prior to the episode is becoming a necessity not only for supervisors and human resource workers but also for every employee. Dr. Lynne McClure, a well-known expert in managing high-risk employee behaviors before they become violent massacres, says there are eight major categories that signal a potential for violence. They occur in certain patterns before any actual violence. Watch out for an employee who exhibits:

Actor behaviors: Acting out on anger; actions as yelling, shouting, slamming doors, etc.

Fragmenting behaviors: Not taking responsibility for their actions, blaming others for their mistakes, unable to see consequences for their actions.

Me-First behaviors: Taking breaks during crunch-time when everyone else is working, putting their wants ahead of everything else, regardless of negative outcomes.

Mixed-Messenger behaviors: Saying they are part of the team, but not acting like it.

Wooden-Stick behaviors: Unwilling to try new technology, withholds information, wants to be in charge, is rigid and controlling

Escape-Artist behaviors: Lying to relieve stress, practicing addictive behaviors like taking drugs and gambling.

Shocker behaviors: Acting out of character or too intensely for the occasion, not showing up for work when previously they were reliable.

Stranger behaviors: Fixating on an idea or person, becoming isolated, social skills become poor.

Triggering Event (the last straw, no way out, no more options): Being fired, laid off or suspended; passed over for promotion Disciplinary action, poor performance review, criticism from supervisor or coworkers, Bank or court action foreclosure, restraining order, custody hearing, Benchmark date, company anniversary, chronological age, Hitler's birthday, as was the case for Columbine, Failed or spurned romance; personal crisis, divorce, death in family. Organizations can prevent employee-initiated violence during the hiring process through careful interviewing and background checks. For the existing work force, they can use a combination of benevolent, motivational, management practices, a zero-tolerance violence policy effectively communicated and enforced, employee training, and appropriate use of counseling, EAP referral and disciplinary action.

People who exhibit these behaviors may be on the verge of committing a violent act. Such attacks "are the products of understandable and often discernible processes of thinking and behavior." So it's up to you and your co-workers to keep an eye out for these warning signs.

Visit the Tracy Barnhart page


  1. Goulet on 12/08/2010:

    I am running my own business from last 25 years and almost all the information mentioned in this article is very true and helpful for all who are the employees or who are employing many people under them. I personally try to interact with my employees and have solved a number of problems in their life giving a helping hand in terms of money or counseling or any other treatment required for them. By my good luck or might be due to a positive attitude towards my employees I never experienced any extremity of this type in case of any of my employees.

  2. starkeep on 01/25/2010:

    After 28 years of the postal service and eeo complaints i have noticed satellite devices used on employees driving them postal. An unmentioned fact within the po.

  3. rickstre on 12/09/2009:

    Although the signs and predictors of violence mentioned are relevant, it is a sad fact that one of the most insidious facets of mental illness is the sheer unpredictability of the infliction itself. Behavioral patterns may emerge, but they tend to be irrational and perhaps easily masked. And most pre-employment background checks and psychological testing are no match for the vociferous paranoia of one who is inflicted with a mental predilection to ultimately "snap", perhaps for the first time in their life, with devastating consequences. It may well be that the only sure prediction of violent tendencies is to follow "gut" reactions, and listen to co-workers who report anything out of kilter; particularly if more than one independent action on the part of the perpetrator is reported.

  4. prznboss on 12/09/2009:

    There was absolutely nothing "postal" about the incident at Ft. Hood. It was an act of Jihad and an act of terrorism.

  5. Police6060 on 12/09/2009:

    Being a corrections in New Jersey for the past 18 years, I have noticed that although we have not looked at the problem, there are factors that add to the risk of a tragedy happening. One of the problems I've noticed is that in some instances, an officer's whole livelihood ist at stake when he or she is continually harassed, belittled, and charged with offenses just because someone doesn't like them. In the disciplinary process here, you can be suspended without pay for a long period of time without income. Some people think that's okay however, that officer has a family and they may suffer because of their spouses not having an income. I have even witnessed the harassment of an officer so bad by internal affairs (just becaused they threatened him continually hoping to get information on another officer), that he saw no ther way out except suicide. Now what if he had channeled that anger into taking action against those that wronged him? Sometimes supervisors, adminstrator's, etc., think this can't happen, but as we all know, when someone is pushed to the brink of their thought process, who knows what can happen.

  6. JP on 12/09/2009:

    This is scary....I see a lot of this at my workplace...at all levels...I see most supervisors keeping their distance from subordinates...there is always a "US against THEM" attitude going on...some supervisors have no idea what constructive criticism is ...they would rather discipline...supervisors here would rather delegate their dirty work than handle it themselves....their is a big lack of communication in my work place...the "ME..ME...ME..is alive and well here...I am a late bloomer at this type of work (10yrs.) and in all of my other years of working in the private sector never did I see such disgruntled, Me...Me..workers as I see in the Dept. of Corrections...

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