Jerel Smith noticed the change in the office last summer. When he started working for Bloomberg in New York three years ago, the 26-year-old computer programmer was pleased to find lots of creative thinking and spirited gossip. But when sales plunged, the screaming kicked in. "People would yell 'What the fuck?' when the printer wasn't working," he says. "One guy pulled out the paper drawer, slammed it on the ground, and walked away." At about that same time across town, a 34-year-old attorney, who asked to be called Todd, lost his job, and in the days since, he has observed the change in his own behavior. He was in line at a coffee shop recently, waiting for his usual soy latte, when a woman tried to cut in front of him. He snapped. "I was standing right in front of you," he yelled. "Can you not even comprehend that I'm a human being who's standing right in front of you?"
White-Collar Rage—the sort of fury once associated with disgruntled postal workers—is popping up everywhere these days. It has spread like toxic waste from one cubicle to the next, steadily polluting the mailroom, the cafeteria, accounting, marketing, legal, and on up, until it's become virtually impossible to outrun. In April 2007, a 29-year-old drugstore pharmacist in the Midwest exploded at a customer who dared to jangle his keys. The customer simply wanted his attention. But the pharmacist, who was on the phone, took out his own keys and threw them at the cash register. Even before he bent down to retrieve them, he knew he had screwed up. "I've got a doctorate," he says, "and I ended up apologizing to a guy looking for Sudafed."
Paul E. Spector, a University of South Florida psychology professor, has studied the phenomenon of hostility in the workplace. "If you're under stress because you think you might lose your job or you're feeling a lack of control because your portfolio is dwindling, that's a recipe for aggressive behavior," he says. According to a survey Spector conducted in 2006, 26 percent of U.S. workers had started an argument with a colleague, 18.5 percent had made an obscene gesture at a coworker, and 3.4 percent had hit or pushed someone in the office, and—comparatively speaking—that was in boom times. Alden M. Cass, a New York psychologist who treats Wall Street traders and executives, suspects that many formerly high-powered honchos are joining the ranks of the meltdown magnates. "It would make sense to me that you would see more outbursts," he says. "These are individuals who've hidden behind their work. Now they have a lot more downtime."
Bloomberg's Jerel Smith succumbed to the malaise as well. A few weeks after the printer incident, he met with the company's CEO to go over a software presentation he'd been working on around the clock. Instead of commending his effort, the CEO called him a "fucking idiot," he says, and yelled, "Don't fuck up my computer." All 700 employees on the floor went silent. "This is not a boiler room in Long Island," Smith explains. "This is the pinnacle of the financial markets. It's grade-A. And he threw an all-out temper tantrum." Smith responded in kind, spiraling into a White-Collar Rage himself, copying 70 of his coworkers on the resignation letter he submitted on his BlackBerry. The jab he liked best: calling the CEO "a loudmouth tasteless family size bag o' douche."
Maybe he would have been better off following the example of Edward, a 26-year-old attorney in Cincinnati. When he's stressed, he likes to go to the gym and lift weights. But when he checked on his 401(k) in November and saw that it had lost close to a third of its value, he knew drastic times called for drastic measures. So he printed out the statement, drove to a shooting range, and pumped 15 rounds into it with a 9mm handgun. "It sounds ridiculous," he says, "but it was cathartic." Way to go, Rambo.