When a Worker Is Served with a Restraining Order, What Should Employers Do?

Kansas workplace shooting raises questions about protecting employees

By Dana Wilkie Feb 26, 2016
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If an employee is at work when served with a restraining order— as was the Kansas man who, 90 minutes after being served, went on a deadly shooting spree this week —should employers take immediate steps to protect the workplace?

While working at Hesston, Kan.-based Excel Industries on Feb. 25, Cedric Larry Ford was served an order of protection from abuse, meant to keep him away from his ex-girlfriend, who did not work at Excel. Witnesses who saw a deputy serve Ford at the lawn care equipment manufacturing plant told sheriff’s deputies that Ford appeared upset, but not excessively so.

An hour and a half later, he opened fire on employees at the plant, killing three and wounding 14, before a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed him.

Could the violence have been prevented? Should company leaders be notified immediately if a worker receives a restraining order alleging an abusive or violent history? Should there be protocols for dealing with a worker in this situation—whether conducting an instant risk assessment, placing the worker on leave or beefing up security?

“These things are infinitely complicated, because being served with a restraining order is not being convicted of a crime,” said Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, vice president of health and wellness at Prudential Financial Inc. in Newark, N.J., and a domestic violence specialist.

No Formal Policies

Harvey County, Kan., Sheriff T. Walton said the protection-from-abuse order that Ford was served was “probably the … trigger” that led to the shootings. Excel HR director Lamar Roth did not reply to an e-mail or phone call seeking comment about what steps the company may have taken to ascertain Ford’s state of mind after he was served with the order.

Dolan-Del Vecchio said he knows of no companies that have formal policies for responding to a worker who has been served with a restraining order.

Jonathan Segal, a partner at the Philadelphia law firm of Duane Morris, said he believes all employers should consider requiring workers who get restraining orders to notify their supervisors immediately—or requiring colleagues who witness the serving to do so. That way, he said, supervisors can monitor the employee’s behavior.

However, he said he’s unaware of any state that mandates such notification.

Damage Control

If a worker who is served appears upset, a supervisor’s first step, Dolan-Del Vecchio said, should be to take the employee to a private place and assess just how angry he or she is and whether the employee might pose a danger to others.

“Ask if they want to talk for a few minutes. Try to demonstrate your concern. Tell them the company has resources for them.”

Red flags to watch for during such a conversation, Segal said, might include “paranoia, aggressive behavior, preoccupation with killers or those killed, and talking about weapons excessively.”

If the worker becomes disruptive—screaming, for instance, cursing or making threats—a supervisor is within his or her rights to have the worker escorted outside the workplace by security officials, to bar access to the workplace until managers can better understand the situation and to even place the worker on administrative leave, Segal said.

Even if an employee later claims that a threat was a joke, Segal said, this “is not a defense.”

“The more specific the threat, the greater the gravity,” he said, especially if the employee discusses how, when and where he or she might hurt someone.

In such cases, Dolan-Del Vecchio said, the employee needs to leave and needs to be barred from re-entering the workplace.

“As soon as that person has left, make the location as secure as it can possibly be,” he said. “This doesn’t mean the employee is fired. It does mean they’re barred from the premises until the situation is better understood.”

For Workers Who Ask for Protection

Ideally, Segal said, the place that employs a person who filed a restraining order—assuming both individuals work at separate places—should have a clear plan in place should the person who received the restraining order approach the workplace.

“Get a picture from the employee of the person subject to the restraining order and circulate it to those who are near entrances, at a minimum,” he said. “Have a system in place so that if the person enters, the receptionist can deal with it safely. The receptionist might call a designated person with a statement that is code to ‘call the police.’  Such as, ‘I am sorry I cannot talk now. We have a visitor whom I want to help.’ A panic button under the desk is even better.”

Guidance for U.S. Companies

Dolan-Del Vecchio is working with the Bloomington, Ill.-based Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence on guidance for U.S. companies whose employees are served with or violate restraining orders.

“The idea [behind the guidance] is that if a workplace expects people to behave with civility and respect, then it makes sense that the employer would expect people to comport themselves in an ethical fashion all the time,” he said. So if an employee is served with an order or charged with domestic violence, the employer has made it clear that the employee is expected to follow any subsequent legal guidance or corrective path.

And if that expectation isn’t met, should that be—according to this guidance—grounds for discipline or firing?

Dolan-Del Vecchio acknowledged that it can be difficult to ascertain if a worker is violating a restraining order unless both the worker and the person who filed the order are employed at the same place, where colleagues can easily see, for instance, if the former approaches the latter, in violation of the order. In that case, he said, this could amount to disruptive behavior, for which the worker can be disciplined or even fired.

When the worker and the person who filed the order work in separate places, he said, there are ways to monitor if the former is violating a restraining order. For instance, if a court has referred the worker to a mandatory batterer’s treatment program, the employer can find out through the family court system if the worker is attending. If a court has ordered that the worker not contact the person who filed the order, supervisors can be alert to whether the worker is using company phones or company e-mail to do so.

“People who batter their partners often do things like scream and yell at the victim on the phone while at work,” he said. “Those kinds of behaviors—at our company—would rise to the attention of what we call our Incident Oversight Team, which … would likely confront this person, because those kinds of behaviors are impossible for other people to work around. If the employee is using company assets to abuse their target, then it’s very likely they would lose their job.”

Resources

For more information on how HR professionals can help create safer workplaces, please view our Disaster Prep and Response Resource Page for news, research and tips on protecting your employees.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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