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Violence Strikes the Workplace

Workplace violence isn’t just limited to high-risk jobs such as police officers, taxi drivers and late night convenience store clerks. It happens everywhere, as illustrated by recent high-profile cases. Workplace shootings have occurred at all types of businesses including factories, hospitals, engineering firms, advertising agencies and colleges.

Testing Issues

Some employers have tried testing to gauge the propensity for violence in applicants or employees.

But the effectiveness is questionable and testing can set the stage for lawsuits claiming defamation of character, emotional distress, or invasion of privacy. Individuals with mental disabilities may argue discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act and related state laws.

Until accurate testing is developed and medical experts agree on uniform standards, employers must rely on gut reactions and background checks to evaluate individuals.

The annual cost to American companies is estimated at billions of dollars a year when taking into account lost productivity, increased insurance premiums for workers’ compensation, disability insurance, employee absence and rising turnover.

Add to that your company’s legal liability for the acts. The federalOccupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to provide a workplace free from hazards that cause harm or death. Some states and localities have similar laws.

A company can be liable under the common law tort theories of “Negligent Hire” and “Negligent Retention.” These principles state that an employer has a duty to exercise reasonable care when hiring and retaining employees. If you know — or have reason to know — that an employee is dangerous, you’re obliged to keep that individual away from other employees and the public.

Juries have assessed enormous compensatory damages for pain and suffering, and there’s no cap on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded.

It’s in your company’s best interests to be proactive. Consult with your attorney about your policies, procedures, handbook and training. Here are some steps to consider to help reduce danger at your company:

  • Set up a policy. There should be a written ban against violence in your employee handbook. All employees should be made aware of the policy and should sign an acknowledgment that they understand it. Outline the consequences of a violation, including discharge and what the company will do in the case of violence, including a prompt investigation and resolution of all claims.
  • Screen applicants. All potential hires should undergo an extensive interview, with special attention given to information on the application form. All prospective hires should be required to sign waivers for police, background and reference checks. And the checks should be completed. Whenever possible, obtain credit reports and other relevant information before you offer someone a job.
  • When hiring, inform finalists that your organization does not tolerate abusive or violent behavior by employees. Make it clear that under no circumstances will you tolerate a violent threat, abusive or insulting language, or violent behavior toward co-workers, managers, supervisors, customers, or visitors in the workplace.
  • Involve everyone. Many violent acts go unreported, so employees should feel comfortable
Check But Don’t Ask

You can run a criminal record check to see if an applicant was everconvicted of a crime. But it’s illegal to ask about a criminal arrest, which only means a person was suspected of a crime.

  • reporting incidents or threats. Set up an easy — and possibly anonymous — way to report incidents, even if you involve an outside call center rather than having employees go through human resources. If a staff member has obtained a restraining order against someone, be sure your security staff knows about it.
  • Evaluate periodically. Employees’ job performance should be evaluated regularly, particularly when duties change. Demotions, discharges and disciplinary actions should be monitored for any display of violent tendencies. And exit interviews are a must.
  • Educate and counsel. Teach employees to know what conduct is acceptable. Tell them what to do in the event of violence and provide immediate counseling to victims and perpetrators. Problem employees should have access to an Employee Assistance Program.
  • Bolster security. Install security measures such as video surveillance, guards, extra lighting and “panic” boxes. No employee should be scheduled to work alone. Provide escorts to remote parking lots and, if necessary, to a staffer’s home. Minimize access to buildings by providing ID badges and electronic keys.
  • Plan a response. Document facts about violent incidents, actions taken, and the rationale for the actions. After a violent incident, organize a plan for dealing with the police and the media, for contacting a victim’s relatives and for handling employee relations.