Preventing Workplace Violence: Make Your Company a ‘Hard Target’

Having a plan that makes the business a difficult target can deter potential aggressors

By Martha Boyd September 22, 2017
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This article is the first in a four-part workplace security series. This part highlights how a business can make itself a difficult target and deter potential aggressors. Read the second part here, the third part here and the fourth part here.

As a soldier in Iraq in 2004, I thought a lot about security. Each time my colleagues and I left the relative security of the so-called Green Zone to head into the city of Baghdad (referred to as the Red Zone because it was relatively unprotected), we took precautions to make ourselves "hard targets." We didn't want to be the convoy that was attacked because we looked weak or vulnerable. That meant, among other things, traveling in armored vehicles, carrying long guns and planning our routes to avoid busy intersections where we might get mired in traffic. It meant that when we arrived at our destination, we knew where we would park, where we would exit our vehicles and where we would enter buildings. It meant knowing in advance where the insurgents could attack us and where we would go if we were attacked.

As an employment lawyer, I urge employers to think about workplace security in the same way—to make themselves hard targets so they are less vulnerable to workplace violence by employees or others.

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Tailoring a Plan

Preparing for any type of workplace violence is key. Larger companies with robust security departments have the advantages of resources and trained personnel who manage the security effort. But for smaller companies with little or no security measures in place, the responsibility often falls on the general counsel or the head of human resources.

As the FBI's Critical Incident Response Group points out in its text Workplace Violence: Issues in Response, there is no one-size-fits-all plan that employers can download and implement. Every employer will need a plan that is tailored to its particular circumstances and that considers company culture, physical layout, resources, management styles and other factors.

The ultimate goal is to deter disgruntled insiders or nefarious outsiders from violence by making your company a hard target. A secondary goal is to make sure your company and workforce are prepared for violence so you can minimize casualties and respond quickly. If you can save a life—or many—the return on investment will be well worth it.

Employers should take three steps, at a minimum, to enhance the security of their workplaces:

  • Assess the current security situation and identify your vulnerabilities.
  • Draft a written security plan that addresses each of the vulnerabilities.
  • Train your workforce on the plan.

Getting Leadership Buy-In

How can general counsels and human resource directors get their companies to focus on workplace security? The argument for investing in security is twofold: Companies have a legal duty—and a moral one—to adequately protect their workforces.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act's general duty clause requires employers to provide employees with a workplace that is "free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees."

Courts have interpreted this clause to mean that an employer is legally obligated to provide a workplace free of conditions or activities that either the employer or industry recognizes as hazardous and that cause—or are likely to cause—death or serious physical harm to employees when there is a reasonable means of alleviating the hazard. Fines of up to $70,000 per violation and criminal penalties can be imposed for willful breaches of this duty.

Most states also recognize the tort of negligent hiring and retention, which imposes liability on businesses when employees are injured by a co-worker and the employer knew or should have known of the aggressor's violent tendencies.

Employers may also be liable for violent acts carried out by third parties. In Schneider v. National R.R. Passenger Corp., for example, an Amtrak ticket agent was attacked while walking to her car in a lot Amtrak leased for employee parking. The court found that Amtrak exercised control of the parking lot by, among other things, providing 24-hour security. There was no security at the time of the attack because the scheduled guard had called out sick and no one was sent to fill in. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a jury verdict of $1.75 million for the employee.

If the potential costs of security upgrades are a concern, that verdict should put the cost/benefit ratio into perspective for company leaders.

Just as important is the moral reason to focus on workplace security. Employers should take care of their people. Creating a safe workplace can make employees feel good about where they work and enhance retention.

If the word "moral" is too ethereal, feel free to reframe the moral duty as a fiscal one: Preventing workplace violence will save you money in terms of employee lawsuits, bad publicity and insurance costs.

This was the first in a four-part series. Read the second installment on the necessary elements of a security plan.


Martha Boyd is an attorney with Baker Donelson in Nashville.

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