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On Aug. 26, 2015, Vester Flanagan, a fired television reporter with a history of conflicts at work, shot two former colleagues. Flanagan waited until Alison Parker and Adam Ward, journalists at WDBJ7 in Roanoke, Va., were recording, then killed them while videotaping the scene on his own video camera. Flanagan shot himself in the head hours later.
Three days later, Jaquan Huston, a chef at P.F. Chang's in the Northshore Mall in Peabody, Mass., fatally stabbed another chef, Elivelton Dias, during dinner rush at the restaurant. Huston has been charged with first-degree murder.
Two very different workplaces, but similarly tragic outcomes.
What can employers do to protect their workers from becoming victims of workplace violence?
In response to the restaurant stabbing, the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health (MassCOSH) issued a statement advising all employers to have plans in place to protect their employees in the event of a violent confrontation.
“There is a perception out there that it’s only certain industries like construction and law enforcement that really have to worry about staying safe on the job,” said MassCOSH Executive Director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb. “But we see workplace violence claiming far too many lives every year in almost every industry, and it’s crucial that all workplaces have a plan in place so workers know what to do and can best protect themselves.”
Employers Cannot Prevent Violence
In reality, there is not that much employers can do to prevent violence, Valerie Samuels, an attorney with Boston law firm Posternak Blankstein & Lund, told SHRM Online.
“It is impossible to predict who will be violent,” she said. “Employers are at a loss about what to do. They do their best, but there is no guarantee that they will be able to prevent a workplace incident.”
Thomas Mandler, an attorney at Hinshaw & Culbertson in Chicago, agreed that employers cannot prevent workplace violence. “Start with the proposition that it is almost totally impossible to provide a completely safe workplace,” he said.
“You can take steps like installing metal detectors. But are we going to become that kind of society?” he asked.
Have Policies in Place
Samuels advised, however, that employers do what they can, which begins with having policies in place. “A zero-tolerance-of-violence policy is a good place to start,” she said. Try to be aware of what is happening in the workplace. An employee may start by bullying other employees and later escalate to violent behavior, she noted. Employers need to step in when they become aware of any bullying. “Send the message to employees that you are trying to keep a safe workplace.”
In addition, all employees should be trained on how to react if a workplace situation looks like it might escalate into violence, Mandler said.
And if you are firing someone, have someone else in the room with you. In case there is an incident, that person will serve as a witness and you won’t have to deal with it alone, Mandler advised.
However, don’t be afraid to seek outside help. “If you are terminating someone who you have reason to believe may become violent, hire security.” Call the police if the situation warrants it, Samuels said.
Preventing workplace violence is complicated by the fact that an assailant may be mentally ill, Samuels noted, making it even more difficult to predict how he or she will react in a particular situation.
And individuals with mental disorders are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Mandler said. Therefore, employers have to exercise some caution in dealing with an employee whom they suspect may have such a disorder. “You can’t ask employees about medication or if they are seeing a psychiatrist,” he said.
If an employee intentionally harms co-workers, can an employer be found legally liable? “I have never seen an employer sued in this type of situation,” Samuels said. But if it were to happen, it would be the case of an employer “who is on notice and doesn’t take steps to deal with it.”
“An employer could be potentially liable to someone if they totally ignored the warning signs. You can’t be an ostrich and put your head in the sand,” Mandler agreed.
Workplace violence is part of a greater societal problem, Samuels said. And now some states allow individuals to carry concealed weapons. “You can put a sign on your door, saying ‘No guns allowed,’ but I doubt that will stop someone determined to bring a weapon to the workplace,” Mandler said.
Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is SHRM’s senior legal editor.
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