The terrible incident last August when a mentally unstable ex-employee of a TV station in Virginia murdered two of his former colleagues and nearly killed another woman before killing himself sparked reflection by employers about workplace violence.
However, while it may appear that disgruntled, possibly mentally ill employees and ex-employees commit most of these crimes, that particular scenario is actually quite rare. In fact, the vast majority of the cases of violence in the workplace involve ex-boyfriends or husbands violently attacking women in their lives, sometimes including their co-workers.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act charges employers with the general responsibility of providing a safe and healthful work environment. OSHA announced that in early 2016 it will begin training inspectors to look at employer workplace violence prevention measures, which could lead to related citations.
About 2 million people are victims of workplace violence annually, OSHA says, but its definition of violence is expansive, covering "any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site." This ranges from threats and verbal abuse, to physical assaults and homicide, and includes employees, clients, customers and visitors.
Other federal and state safe workplace laws—as well as established common law liability—also require that employers take reasonable precautions to ensure their employees don’t act violently.
Bans against criminal background checks of job applicants are proliferating throughout states and cities. At the federal level government contractors now face that same prospect. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission aggressively sued employers, alleging background checks are racially discriminatory. (EEOC has seen mixed results ranging from big-dollar employer settlements to court rebukes for shoddy evidence gathering.)
Attorney Robin E. Shea of the law firm of Constangy Brooks Smith & Prophete recommends the following steps for employers to reduce the risk of workplace violence:
Adopt a workplace violence policy. Make it clear that it applies not only to on-duty conduct but also to off-duty conduct that could have an impact in the workplace.
Pay attention to employees who may be victims of domestic violence, and give them your support. Shea notes that while domestic violence is often viewed as a "private matter," spousal abuse also can spill over into the workplace, endangering not only the battered spouse or partner, but also co-workers and customers.
Be as aggressive as you can legally be in performing criminal background checks on new hires. If you can help it, don’t let an individual start work until after you’ve received the results. Many state and local laws prohibiting criminal background checks during the application process allow employers to conduct them before extending a job offer.
If an applicant has a violent crime in his background, make him explain it, Shea urges. "At the very least, you need to know how old the conviction is, what the individual’s record has been since the conviction, and the circumstances."
If a current employee is charged with a violent crime, she also says you should seriously consider suspending the employee pending the outcome of the plea or trial.
Be serious about security at your workplace. Ensure in-house security teams are equipped to handle threatening or violent incidents. If you issue security cards, don’t let employees swipe each other or non-employees into the building. If you share space, you may want to join fellow tenants to talk with your landlord about whether the security measures are adequate.
Listen to that "little man" in your gut. If an applicant or employee gives you or other employees an uneasy feeling, pay attention. "You may not be able to take action based on a gut reaction, but your ‘little man’ may help you notice—and act upon—objective warning signs more quickly," Shea points out.
Sparkman is founding editor of ACWI Advance (www.acwi.org), the newsletter of the American Chain of Warehouses Inc., as well as a member of the MH&L Editorial Advisory Board.