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Training Employees on Workplace Violence Can Save Lives

The shooting of eight employees by a disgruntled co-worker in Connecticut is a chilling reminder of the prevalence of workplace violence in America. Almost 1,000 Americans are murdered in the workplace every year, and 63 of those people are killed by a co-worker. In today’s economy, many people are working longer hours and feeling more stress than in previous years. This results in an increase in violent and inappropriate behavior among employees.

While the issue is scary, focusing on which employee is most likely to snap is a misuse of your time. Instead, employers should concentrate on creating a positive working atmosphere, where employees feel free to voice their concerns to management, and where employees and employers look out for each other’s well-being – an atmosphere where doing the right thing permeates the workplace.  Employees should be urged to reach out to management when they recognize that a co-worker is experiencing difficulties or showing signs of stress, whether they suspect workplace violence or not.

It is imperative that all employers train their supervisors and employees to prevent workplace violence.  Employees and supervisors also need to learn how to recognize warning signs of workplace violence. In addition, supervisors should be trained to deal with unhappy employees in a safe and positive manner. (Where such training is not provided, they at least need to know they must alert management.) 

As the recent shooting reminds us, the most important time for these precautions is during a discharge.  Supervisors need to learn what precautionary steps to take before they fire an employee, including such things as the location of the meeting, who should be present in the room, and whether there were any previous warning signs of violence from this employee which warrant extra precautions. In certain instances, it may be prudent to have security or the police nearby or on alert. In the most extreme cases, you may even do a discharge over the phone.  Finally, if you have any indication of potential violence, you need a plan to escort the employee out of the building and a plan to protect other employees as they exit the building. 

On the other side of all these precautionary words, employers must remember that announcing someone is a threat to others safety can be defamatory and subjects the employer to liability.  Your basis for making such a statement is key.  Sometimes such statements are needed, but often better alternatives exist.  You need to consider all your options.  Experienced counsel is often appropriate in such cases. 

Overall, most instances of workplace violence go unreported. To avoid a culture of secrecy, every employer should have a procedure for reporting signs of possible workplace violence and minor acts of violence or other inappropriate behavior including bullying.  One option is to implement a hotline where employees can anonymously report suspicious or unwelcome activity in the workplace. Also, employers would benefit from having a conflict management system, whereby an employee can voice their frustrations and work through them with management.  Of course for smaller employers, an effective open door policy may be the answer.  The alternatives are many; the employer’s obligation is to choose one.