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Legal - Don’t be scared - Be prepared! Violence issues in the workplace


DALLAS/FT WORTH - Scenario: An employee enters the job site wearing camouflaged clothing, carrying a large paper sack. The employee, who speaks to no one, has been acting strangely recently, making threats to his supervisor and fellow employees and making comments about getting even.




    What would you do and why is this important?  Homicide is the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States, so it is an important issue to deal with.
    Defining workplace violence: Employers must understand the full gamut of behavior. Generally, workplace violence is any act that creates a hostile environment and/or negatively affects an employee physically or psychologically, including:
• Physical or verbal assault
• Threats
• Coercion
• Harassment
    Workplace violence can be caused by disgruntled employees, jilted lovers, spousal situations, stalkers, the mentally ill, people with substance abuse issues, bullies/racists and instances of robbery or murder at the worksite.
    Factors that can increase workplace violence: Unsurprisingly, many of the factors that increase workplace violence are stress-related. Additional factors include frustrations from poorly defined job responsibilities, labor disputes, poor management styles (e.g., arbitrary or unexplained orders; over-monitoring; reprimands in front of employees, inconsistent discipline), inadequate security or a poorly trained, poorly motivated security force, a lack of employee counseling, downsizing or reorganization, understaffing that leads to job overload or compulsory overtime. If any of these factors sound like your workplace – definitely read on. Actually, read on anyway.
    Employer liability for workplace violence: A company can be liable for violence at or related to the workplace if, among other things:
• It failed to properly screen employees, resulting in hiring a person with a history or evidence of criminal acts.
• It kept an employee after the employer became aware of the employee’s unsuitability.
• It failed to provide necessary monitoring to ensure employees are performing duties.
• It had inadequate measures to safeguard employees and customers from potential threats.
    The potential liability can be significant.
How to prevent workplace violence: A number of considerations go into keeping a workplace safe. These include:
• Screening (if you ask for references, check references.)
• Drug testing
• Policies (have and follow the right policies)
• Training (employees need to know how to act and managers need to know what to do)
• Security (good security – not window dressing)
• Searches (reserve the right to search and make sure everyone knows it)
• Threat investigation (if you hear of a threat, act on it. If you dismiss a threat and are wrong, consequences can be severe.)
• Employee assistance program (consider giving your employees an outlet to express any concerns. Sometimes just being able to complain makes people feel better.)
• Discharge (plan a fair and humane termination)
• Problem solving (stop and think about what your employees are saying)
    Common employer errors: Employers often ignore threatening behavior or even escalate risk through confrontational approaches or premature or inappropriate police involvement. Nothing heightens the tension like having a person in uniform around. Employers need to weigh the need. Peace bonds or restraining orders against irrational or desperate people can be of limited effect and may make people angrier.
    Employers cannot expect employee assistance programs or the like to change an employee’s personality or make all the problems go away. Failing to document misconduct can allow an employee to think he/she is “getting away with it.” Plus, it creates a situation where employees are surprised when disciplined for misbehavior, which should not happen.
    Develop a workplace violence prevention program: OSHA requires, in many cases, a written emergency action plan, kept in the workplace and available for employee review; however, employers with 10 or fewer employees can communicate the plan orally. Training is key so employees understand their roles and responsibilities in an emergency. An emergency action plan should address issues specific to your workplace. The annual fire drills companies have are shown to be effective when a fire occurs. Why not have a safety drill? It cannot hurt, and look how much it could help.
    Art Lambert is a partner in the Dallas office of labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips. He can be reached at (214) 220-8324 or alambert@fisherphillips.com.

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