Long, Hot Summer Question: Why Are Some Employees Freaking Out?

Peter Finch as Howard Beale in the film Network.

* See updates below

Yes, I know it’s late summer. And yes, I know it has been scorching, make-you-crazy hot through most of the U.S.

But still I wonder: what is causing so many employees to throw good sense to the wind and resort to a Howard Beale-like “I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-this-anymore” rant as they very publicly quit their jobs?

Here are two prime (and vivid) examples:

  • A veteran flight attendant and steward for Jet Blue went over the edge after a “verbally and physically abusive” female passenger allegedly defied flight crew instructions and then “intentionally hit him in the head with the lid of an overhead baggage compartment” after landing at JFK. This drove him to get on the plane’s “public-address intercom and let loose a string of invective,” according to The New York Times. “Then, the authorities said, he pulled the lever that activates the emergency-evacuation chute and slid down, making a dramatic exit not only from the plane but, one imagines, also from his airline career. “
  • Although not quite as wild an exit as the Jet Blue flight attendant, a young woman decided to quit her job through a series of photos that explain why in words scrawled on a white board she’s holding. Although it’s unclear where she works or the nature of the business, she takes shots at her boss (who she describes as sexist, dismissive, and bad tempered), and outs him for all the time he spends each week playing around on the computer. And then, she e-mails the photo series to everyone else in the company. (UPDATE: Although this public resignation now appears to be a media prank, it is still interesting how the notion of this kind of resignation has touched a nerve with so many people in this economy. As The Washington Post noted, “people are already speculating that (this resignation is) a fake, but the joy it prompted was definitely real.”)

Are these just two isolated examples of people in unique circumstances pushed over the edge, or are they the sign of something bigger? That’s the point of Howard Beale’s famous rant in the movie Network (and I have included the wonderful scene here in its entirety so you can remember just how liberating it felt), and when you watch it again, notice how much of what he says in the 1976 movie applies to our lives here in 2010.

With so many workers and organizations continuing to feel the impact of the ongoing economic downturn that doesn’t seem to be really improving all that much, how do managers and HR professionals not only keep their workers engaged, but from going over the edge?

Yes, the Jet Blue flight attendant seemed to have a lot of issues and stress in his life (as this post from Gawker makes clear), and yes, the very public resignation of one young female worker because she’s got a lousy boss doesn’t make a trend.

But, what if this just the tip of the iceberg? What if we all have workforces full of angry and hostile employees who are royally pissed off because of all the layoffs, pay freezes, and benefit cuts, people who are so close to the edge that it will only take a slight nudge to send them over it, just like the fictional Howard Beale?

“There are more people reacting to anger triggers now than ever before, in every part of the airline industry,” Alan Sirowitz, director of clinical services at JFK Advanced Medical, a health center at the airport, told Crain’s New York Business.  “There are people who intentionally annoy flight attendants, and have an attitude of taking advantage of them because of their own stress factors.”

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“Airports are very stressful places,” he added. “Frustration on both sides — passengers and employees — is part of the equation…You can be prepared to hear about more of these incidents occurring,” Sirowitz predicted.

Air travel these days seems to bring out the worst in people — I told a colleague that the behavior of people on planes frequently makes me wonder how we ever evolved as a species — but aren’t many industries, professions, and businesses facing lots of the same kinds of pressures as the economy limps along? And consider this: a Facebook page dedicated to Slater has 36,000 fans so far, and many left comments about their crazy bosses or incredibly stressful job situations.

You should be worrying about this if you are a manager, executive, or HR professional? Yes, it may be just another long, hot summer, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be ready for when one of OUR workers gets to the point where they are mad as hell and won’t take it anymore.

UPDATE No. 2: The New York Times gives a few more details after briefly talking with flight attendant Steven Slater himself, mainly, that he dreamed for years about going down the escape chute. There’s also some comment (finally) from Jet Blue.

UPDATE: USA Today weighed in this morning with a smart story on this same premise, and they made this point:

Slater did what many workers fantasize about and may do with increasing frequency — albeit with less showmanship — once the economy rebounds. “I don’t think we should be surprised that once the economy starts … picking up, there’s a massive relocation of workers who want out as fast as they possibly can,” says economist Joel Naroff, president and chief economist of Naroff Economic Advisors.

“That’s the warning that I don’t think businesses really recognize: You can pull this off now because there isn’t really an option, but once there’s an option, it’s going to be payback time,” Naroff says. “You’re going to be losing some of your best people.”

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.