Thursday, August 27, 2015

Focusing on Workplace Violence

No doubt the Virginia television station where a disgruntled former employee killed two co-workers during a live broadcast and injured another yesterday, wishes that it had kept that former employee off the premises after his termination. Maybe that would have prevented the tragedy. That’s easy to say now; hindsight being what it is.  Although nothing can alleviate the sorrow and loss for the families, friends and co-workers of those victims, employers can take measures in their own workplaces to help ensure that these types of tragedies don’t occur. 

First of all, it’s not easy for most employers to genuinely believe that any of their employees could one day resort to murder in their workplace. Some managers and supervisors even shy away or delay addressing the issue of workplace violence because it seems so remote and making it a top priority seems so dramatic, especially when other business is pressing. Although workplace violence of the magnitude seen yesterday at that Virginia television station is rare, it’s worth every employer’s time to create policies and practices that prevent violence on any level in the workplace.

First of all, employers should not be afraid to act when an employee threatens violence or exhibits behavior that reasonably leads the employer to believe that he or she may be a danger to themselves or the safety of others. Although violence is sometimes or even often rooted in mental illness (depression caused or exacerbated by loss of a job, failed expectations, or frustrations in the workplace for instance), such behavior is never protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is just never a reasonable accommodation to allow a threatening or violence prone employee to remain in the workplace. 

Employers can and should deal with these situations quickly. It is always within an employer’s right to send an employee home (sometimes with pay) who is exhibiting violent tendencies, until a physician selected and paid for by the employer declares them fit for duty. It may be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA to provide a leave of absence for an employee to obtain treatment for violent thoughts or even some threatening behavior that is the result of a disability, but the employer does not have to allow an employee to continue working who poses a threat, regardless of the root of that behavior.  Additionally, a readily available Employee Assistance Program can help avoid situations from reaching that critical level.

Employers should also consider adopting a workplace violence policy or reviewing their current policy. In addition to prohibiting violence in the workplace, it should encourage employees to immediately report safety concerns and reassure them that they will be protected in their good faith reporting of such. Employers are equally wise to include workplace violence awareness in their employee training program. Part of the prevention of future tragedies is to raise awareness of the problem and signs of potential violence. 

Discharged employees should be prohibited from entering the workplace without an appointment and an escort. Those that were disgruntled or especially agitated upon discharge should be banned from the workplace entirely. While this is more difficult to enforce in workplaces or work areas that are open to the public, especially governmental workplaces, safety concerns generally supersede the right to enter public facilities,  Employees should be instructed to immediately call security if former employees appear who have been identified as safety threats. The same holds true for members of the public who have threatened violence or the employer reasonably believes to be violence prone. In addition, employers should consider other safety enhancing equipment in public areas, such as protective glass or other barriers, panic alarms and surveillance cameras when appropriate. 

It may all sound so dramatic, but in an increasingly violence prone world, it is a sad reality that employers must face.