Five tips on preventing workplace violence

published in McAfee & Taft EmployerLINC | October 15, 2014

By Phil Bruce

Acts of workplace violence have, unfortunately, become all too common. Workplace violence can include anything from minor physical altercations and threats to tragic and brutal attacks or shootings. For employers, preventing workplace violence can often seem like walking a tightrope between protecting people and avoiding (or defending) a lawsuit.

For example, Phillip Mazaheri recently sued Uber, the provider of a mobile ride-sharing app, when an Uber driver punched Mazaheri in the face, causing serious injuries. Or, when Twila Gaff sued St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center after the hospital fired Gaff for threatening to shoot a co-worker because she believed the co-worker was sexually harassing her. These cases provide examples of lawsuits where the employer was accused of either doing too little or too much. This article gives five tips to help employers walk that fine line.

1. Take immediate action when necessary

Nothing is more important than the safety of your employees, your customers, and the public. Simply put, if there’s an emergency, worry about safety first and lawsuits last. That means calling the police first if there’s an emergency, not your lawyer. If you have a real concern that an employee or customer may pose an immediate threat, it’s best to do everything that needs to be done to stop the threat and protect people.

2. Do background checks — the right way

Most states, including Oklahoma, recognize the tort claim of negligent hiring, supervising or retention. These claims generally require the plaintiff to prove that the employer would have learned of an employee’s likelihood to behave in a certain way (e.g., act violently or drive recklessly) had the employer used reasonable efforts to investigate a candidate or employee. Moreover, an employer may be liable if it has actual knowledge of an employee’s likely behavior and does nothing about it. Bottom line, employers should do a diligent background search on applicants and employees. And if the employer learns of unwanted behaviors, it should take appropriate actions.

workplace-violenceBut here’s the rub; several federal and state laws and government agencies regulate how employers can do background checks. For instance, the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires employers to follow detailed requirements when receiving certain background information on applicants or employees from a vendor. Violating these requirements can lead to statutory penalties of up to $1,000 per violation. Oklahoma state law also recently limited employers’ abilities to request user names and passwords of social media accounts from applicants and employees. And the EEOC takes the position that having a blanket prohibition on hiring any individual with a criminal record can violate Title VII because it disproportionally affects certain minority groups. In the end, it’s important to implement some type of background check policy, but recognize the often technical requirements.

3. Implement (and follow) appropriate policies and training

Along with doing background checks, make sure you have certain written policies in place. This can include a workplace violence policy that makes it a terminable offense to threaten people or act violently. More importantly, an acceptable policy will put employees on notice that the employer takes all workplace violence reports seriously and will investigate them immediately.

Employers should also implement some type of weapons policy. Oklahoma law requires employers to let employees leave an unloaded gun in a locked car, even if parked on the employer’s property. Otherwise, Oklahoma is flexible; employers can limit or allow employees, managers, or even customers to carry or not carry weapons as the employer sees fit. Another helpful policy to add is an anti-bullying policy. This policy can easily be included in an anti-harassment policy and should help discourage bullying that could lead to violence by a disgruntled worker.

4. Boost morale

Employers cannot foresee or prevent every tragedy. Overall, though, satisfied employees are less likely to act violently. Employers should do their part to create a congenial and friendly atmosphere in the workplace. This includes having an open door policy where employees can voice frustrations before they get out of hand. Help employees understand they are appreciated and part of a team. A little encouragement may go a long way.

5. Handle terminations with care

Terminating an employee can often be a contentious or emotional ordeal. Because of that, terminated employees may be more likely to retaliate violently. So, take the following precautions: First, make it a practice to include at least two people in any termination meeting. Consider the best time to terminate the employee; this may be at the beginning of the workweek or workday so the terminated employee will not be leaving with others, or it could be at the end of the week so the employee may have a cooling off period when the company is not open for business. Whatever you decide is best for your business, do not drag the decision out unnecessarily. It is best to do it promptly. During the meeting, be polite but direct. Be clear that this is the end of the employment relationship. Do not waiver or change your mind during the meeting, as this may only make it more difficult and, chances are, you will need to terminate the employee eventually. Do not hesitate to make it a normal practice to have one or two managers escort terminated employees out of the building. Finally, if you have any reason to believe that the employee you are going to terminate may become angry or violent, call security or the police ahead of time.