Q: I was a postmaster assigned to the Appalachian District in Charleston, W.Va., and because a fellow employee threatened to kill me, I have been transferred to a position 150 miles from my home. I have repeatedly said that I don't have the money to move. I live on a 40-acre farm and have been unable to sell it. The Postal Service will not give me financial assistance to relocate.

The Postal Service does not support you emotionally in this type of situation. It adds to an already unbearable position by making the decision to send you away from your home and loved ones.

A: This is a bad scenario, but there's one piece of good news here: The threat was taken seriously.

Experts on workplace violence say it is a widespread misperception that office homicides simply erupt unexpectedly. Rather, they say, most people contemplating homicide tell others--sometimes repeatedly--of their intentions. The full facts have yet to emerge in the nation's most recent killing spree--nine deaths at two investment offices in Atlanta--but typically co-workers know on some level when they are at risk from an unhinged colleague. Whether the threat becomes a reality, however, is sometimes a function of how well the company responds to the crisis.

Norm Scherstrom, a Postal Service spokesman, declined to comment publicly on the specifics of this case but did not dispute the general facts outlined by the letter writer. He acknowledged that her safety was at issue but would not discuss the question of relocation costs.

"This matter has received considerable attention from postal officials at many levels," Scherstrom said. "However, the matters are currently under review through the equal employment opportunity process, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment further."

Management consultant and workplace violence expert Mark Braverman, a principal with CMG Associates in Newton, Mass., and author of "Preventing Workplace Violence: A Guide for Employers and Practitioners," has consulted with the Postal Service about its workplace problems. He was unfamiliar with this case but agreed to discuss the issue in general terms. He said the Postal Service is working hard to reduce the level of violence and threats of violence in its ranks, but long-brewing management-labor tensions mean "it still has a long way to go."

The Postal Service, like other union employers, sometimes finds that workers, even those who make death threats, are shielded by their unions, leaving managers relatively unprotected, Braverman said. Sometimes employers find "it's easier to fix the problem by taking the easiest action and moving the manager around," he said.

In contrast, in similar situations in which employees have been terrorized by co-workers, most private employers take steps to protect the victim financially where possible, Braverman said, including paying relocation costs.

"A good employer tries to do the right thing," he said. "It's good business to act responsibly and not be perceived as callous or willing to sacrifice employees."

Q: I am employed at an information services company. The organization recently relocated to a windowless room that is divided into eight cubicles. One of my colleagues, who has poor eyesight, persuaded the facilities workers to replace the existing overhead incandescent light fixtures, which provided a warm, pleasant light, with about twice as many fluorescent lighting fixtures. The resulting level of light is intolerable to me because I am overly sensitive to it.

I have tried various remedies, including placing a glare screen over my monitor and disabling the lighting fixture directly over my cubicle. I even tried wearing tinted lenses, though I do not need glasses for work. Nothing really helped. Nobody else seems to be bothered enough by the lighting to take any action. Any ideas?

A: Ask your employer or company's landlord to pick up the cost of a parabolic diffuser, an egg-crate-style grille that can fit over the light fixture, said Ken Ceder, president of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Ott Light Systems Inc., which makes lighting fixtures. He said most hardware stores sell parabolic diffusers, though it may be necessary to jury-rig them a bit to fit them into place.

If necessary, buy one yourself, Ceder said. He said fluorescent lighting causes vision problems for many workers, but companies install such lights because they are energy-efficient and less expensive than incandescent lights, though they can lead to unforeseen costs in increased absenteeism and reduced productivity.

The best way to brighten work space is with natural lighting, but the next best is full-spectrum lighting with task lighting to help illuminate specific work areas, Cedar said.

"Good light is essential to wellness, next to water and air," he said.


Got a tough workplace question? We'll take your questions, comments and concerns to workplace and management experts. We can't answer the letters personally, but we'll include many of your stories in upcoming columns and articles.

Write to workplace reporter Kirstin Downey Grimsley at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Or send e-mail to downeyk@washpost.com. Please include your name, address and telephone numbers--although we won't publish your name without your permission.