At around 9 am this past Friday (8/24) Jeffrey Johnson shot and killed his former coworker, Steven Ercolino, at the Hazan Import Co. in New York City. Minutes later the police shot and killed Mr. Johnson as he was attempting to leave the scene. Mr. Johnson, 58 years old, was laid off last year from his position as a clothing designer. Mr. Ercolino, who was 41, was the VP of Sales according to his Linked in profile. The NYC Police Commissioner said that Johnson and Mr. Ercolino had filed harassment complaints against each other related to a “workplace dispute.”
This is the nightmare combination every company dreads: a termination entwined with a workplace conflict. Terminations and layoffs have a powerful emotional affect on those who have lost their jobs, their coworkers and the managers who are charged with communicating the bad news. When terminations take place in the context of a workplace conflict, employee anxieties are amplified.
My sympathies go out to the family, friends and coworkers. Some coworkers will be contending with intrusive thoughts about whether they missed something or should have done something differently at some point along the chain of events that ended with Mr. Ercolino’s murder. Some will review their interactions with Mr. Johnson and be troubled by “what if” scenarios. A few may experience intense feelings of anger, anxiety and betrayal. The painful, but necessary, process of reviewing what happened and why will be particularly stressful for the management team.
Deeply disturbing events like this shooting inevitably produce a wide range of reaction and comment. Less than 4 hours after the story broke on Friday someone posted the following response to the New York Daily News web report about the shooting:
“This guy was a martyr for the elderly unemployed…..try finding a skilled job after 50…..maybe more HR people will keep this in mind next time they are thinking of retiring someone early.”
I don’t have any special knowledge of Mr. Johnson, but I know that he is not a martyr for the older unemployed or for any other group. He is, rather, a man who has used murder as a means of addressing a workplace grievance. This is a desperate and deranged act which should not be justified in any way.
For those of us concerned with creating and maintaining healthy, safe and productive workplaces this event is a powerful reminder of the intensity of feelings that people have about their employment and about issues of fairness and respect in the workplace. Work is not only a deeply personal reflection of identity but it’s also a matter of financial survival. Threats to identity and financial survival can fester and lead to desperation.
While workplace homicide is a rare event, workplace conflict is not. In a world where “going postal” has become part of our vocabulary, employees think about these well-publicized violent incidents when workplace conflicts erupt. In this cultural context, organizations have a vital interest in proactively managing interpersonal conflicts with due diligence, skill, fairness and sensitivity.