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Defending Against Workplace Violence

Written by: Charla Bizios Stevens

Published in Business NH Magazine (May 2016)

The news is full of reports of gun violence in workplaces, at schools, in movie theatres, all places where people have historically felt safe and comfortable.  People going about their business are suddenly and unexpectedly struck down by terrorists, by people holding grudges, and by those suffering from a variety of unsuccessfully treated mental illnesses. 

Workplace violence is rare, but when it happens, they are the stories that make front-pagenews.  In February, Cedric Ford left his job at Excel Industries in Kansas and returned with a gun, killing three people andinjuring 14.  There was something “real off” about him said a co-worker, describing  him as always “smiling and laughing” and someone who “didn’t seem like an angry person,” according to published reports.

Syed Rizwan Farook attended a workplace holiday party in December 2015 with his wife and shot and killed 14 and injured many more.  He described by his co-workers at the San Bernadino County Public Health Department as a “quiet and polite” man “with no obvious grudges.”

In September 2012, Andrew John Edlinger responded to the notification that he was losing his job at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis by shooting five fellow workers.   According to neighbors, he was a loner who never engaged in conversation with anyone, while a former coworker described him as not eating lunch or taking breaks with other employees.

So how do employers keep employees and visitors safe?  How can someone who is a real threat be identified and stopped?  In reality, all violence cannot be prevented, and there are many different theories and opinions on how best to prevent workplace violence. 

Prevention

As with most workplace issues, good prevention begins with training, education and good hiring practices: 

  • Have clear policies against any form of workplace violence including threats and intimidation.  Swift and consistent discipline, including termination for any act of violence, should be imposed.
  • Consider a no-weapons policy which carefully defines the type of weapons to be banned from company property, if any are allowed.
  • Train employees not only about workplace policies but also about what to do in the event of an incident, ranging from a threat or intimidation to the presence of an active shooter.  Companies have long held unannounced fire drills. Now sadly, should not incorporate drills on what to do if there is an attack.
  • Require employees to inform management if they have been threatened either by co-workers or others.  Employers should be aware of restraining orders obtained by employees or against them to protect others.
  • Conduct thorough pre-employment screening which includes comprehensive criminal background checks. 

 

Recognition

It can be difficult to identify a threat.  Supervisors and managers should be trained to recognize signs of behavior that might escalate into violence. As employers encourage employees to come forward to report potential threats, care should be taken to avoid retaliation against people who raise concerns.  Such concerns should be promptly and thoroughly investigated. Investigations may require the expertise of law enforcement or mental health providers. 

Employees identified as potentially threatening or in need of mental health treatment should be referred to an Employee Assistance Program.  Those who exhibit threatening behavior may need to be sent for an evaluation of their fitness for duty.  Due to the need to balance the safety of employees with the privacy of the individual, companies should consult with their attorney prior to imposing requirements for mental health evaluation and treatment.

Response

Businesses would be well advised to engage the services of experts to conduct an assessment of the risks and threats in the workplace.  Although there are many qualified service providers in this area, the best place to start is often with local law enforcement.  Most police departments are more than willing to send a representative not only to make recommendations about how to secure a physical plant and to train the workforce on what to do if the unthinkable happens.  When should employees flee?  When is it better to shelter in place?  What information should be communicated to a 911 dispatcher when there is an active shooter on premises?  Can  your employees answer these questions? 

Statistics show that the national average of response time from a 911 call to first responders on premises is 14 minutes while the average shooting incident takes less than 10 minutes.  That means most potential victims are on their own and need to have some level of understanding of how to survive.

Basic Tips

Of course the type of viable security precautions varies from business to business and building to building, but the following are some general tips gathered from the increasing flow of literature on the topic of workplace safety:

  • Assess the security of the building and whether to incorporate swipe cards for access, automatically locking doors, bullet proof glass, video surveillance, panic buttons and/or metal detectors.  Not all of these are appropriate for all locations, but some combination of these tools might be lifesaving.
  • Use plainclothes or uniformed security regularly or in the event of a threat.
  • Instruct employees to be vigilant and ask questions if they don’t recognize people in the building.
  • Where scan cards or some other type of restricted access such as a passcode or a thumbprint are used, insure that employees do not hold doors for others, even co-workers. 
  • Make sure security, receptionists and others know if there is an order of protection in place and have a photograph of anyone not allowed on the premises.
  • Suggest that employees walking to and from buildings or working off site are not alone, especially at night. 
  • Instruct employees on maintaining vigilance and awareness of their surroundings and designate someone who should be notified in the event something “just doesn’t look right. 

 

New Hampshire employers are required to update their safety plans every two years.   If your company’s plan does not have a section on preventing workplace violence, that review and update should take place now.  Violence can happen anywhere and anytime as many companies have painfully discovered.  Be ready….just in case. 

Charla Bizios Stevens is a director in the Litigation Department and chair of the Employment Practice Group at the law firm of McLane, Middleton. She can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter at @charlastevens. She also contributes regularly to www.employmentlawbusinessguide.com.

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