Murder at the Post Office: Until Culture Change Is a Reality, It's a "Ticking Bomb." (Cover Story)

Training & Development, January 1994 | Go to article overview
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Murder at the Post Office: Until Culture Change Is a Reality, It's a "Ticking Bomb." (Cover Story)


No examination of workplace violence is complete without a discussion of the U.S. Postal Service.

Over the past decade, 36 people have been killed and 20 wounded at postal facilities around the country. The latest incidents occurred last May, when four people were killed on the same day in two separate shootings in Michigan and California.

The Postal Service also is the site of one of the worst cases of violence ever directed against an employer. In 1986, Patrick Henry Sherrill, a part-time letter carrier who had been reprimanded and warned that he would receive a poor performance report, went on a rampage and killed 14 people at the Edmond, Oklahoma, post office. It was the third worst case of mass murder by a single person in U.S. history.

With more than 700,000 employees, the U.S. Postal Service has the nation's largest civilian labor force. Postal Service officials contend that, given the size of their employee population, the amount of violence is not statistically large.

A troubled environment. While that is undoubtedly true, experts who have studied the post office killings have come away with a nearly unanimous conclusion that a contributing factor is the rigid, almost paramilitary work culture of the Postal Service. The current post-master general, Marvin Runyon, has pledged to change that system.

According to researchers Joseph Kinney and Dennis Johnson, the characteristics of a troubled work environment are as follows:

* chronic labor/management disputes

* frequent grievances filed by employees

* extraordinary numbers of injury claims, especially psychological injuries

* understaffing, or excessive demands for overtime * many stressed workers

* authoritarian management.

It is significant that many of those characteristics exist in the Postal Service. In Florida, for example, one-fourth of the complaints filed in 1992 with the National Labor Relations Board against all employers and unions in the state were filed against U.S. Postal Service managers. The accusations--nearly 200 in all--ran the gamut from suspending workers for union activities, to installing a window in a post office to spy on workers visiting their union steward, to ordering a window clerk to remove photos of her grandchildren.

A Virginia woman, Callie Norton, worked for the Postal Service in the 1970s, sorting mail at a large regional center. She says the stresses she complained of then are still identified as problems today.

Norton said in an interview that because mishandling the mail is a federal offense, there was extraordinarily close supervision where she worked.

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Murder at the Post Office: Until Culture Change Is a Reality, It's a "Ticking Bomb." (Cover Story)
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