When I first started practicing law, counseling an employer about how to discipline or terminate an employee did not regularly include assessing whether the worker is a violence-prone individual or examining whether there are environmental factors that may make the worker more susceptible to violence. Today, my checklist does — and for very good reason.
Stories of workplace violence, including homicides, have become too commonplace in the media. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that over 2 million people a year are the victims of workplace violence, which OSHA defines as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.” While the vast majority of workplace violence incidents are non-fatal, homicides still remain one of the leading causes of death from an occupational injury.
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Given the increase in number of workplace violence incidents, prudent employers should be proactive in preventing workplace violence. Here are some tips:
Implement policies: Establish a robust employee handbook with policies that regulate employee conduct and enable the employer to enforce civility among co-workers. These policies should prohibit bullying, harassment and discrimination and establish a zero-tolerance for violence. Key policies also can establish the rules related to weapons in the workplace, drug and alcohol usage and other safety standards.
Train: Train all employees on the applicable workplace policies and the company’s expectations of proper conduct in the workplace. Managers also should receive special training on topics such as how to deescalate a situation and how to identify signs of employee behavior that are concerning and should be reported.
Conduct background checks: Conducting background checks on new hires may help to identify risk factors and avoid negligent hiring claims. Employers need to ensure background checks are conducted with careful compliance with a variety of legal restrictions.
Managers also should receive special training on topics such as how to deescalate a situation and how to identify signs of employee behavior that are concerning and should be reported.
Communicate/report: Establish reporting mechanisms. Encourage employees to report any violations of workplace policies, including incidents of violence or behavior that is concerning or questionable.
Investigate: Do not prejudge complaints that are received. Take all complaints seriously and investigate them properly. Include professionals such as risk assessment specialists, law enforcement and legal counsel when appropriate.
Mediate: Assist workers involved in conflicts in mediating their disputes. Some employers establish formal mediation programs that co-workers can opt to participate in to resolve disputes.
Establish security protocols: Implement appropriate safety and security measures for the specific work environment. These measures may include security guards, identification keys, pass codes, cameras and locked doors. Ensure employees respect these security measures. Locked doors shouldn’t be propped open; unauthorized personnel shouldn’t be given access to secured areas, etc.
Enforce protective orders: Encourage workers to report if they have a restraining order or a protective order against someone (such as an abusive spouse or domestic partner). Take steps to assist in the enforcement of these orders such as alerting building security of the order and identifying the person subject to it.
Create an emergency action plan: Establish a plan; train every employee on the plan. Key components of any plan include calling 911, knowing how to evacuate or secure trapped personnel, and knowing how to administer CPR and first aid.
Conduct terminations with care: Assess, in advance, whether there is a threat risk from a planned termination, layoff or disciplinary action. Err on the side of caution. Personnel actions should be conducted with a witness present. If necessary, security personnel also should be present or in near proximity. Workers assessed to be potential threats should be escorted from the premises, and their physical access to the workplace should be shut down immediately. If applicable, building security should be advised that the worker is not authorized to be on the premises.
Given the current environment, prudent employers should invest resources into preventing the risk of violence in the workplace. When it comes to the threat of workplace violence, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. No manager ever wants to ask themselves, “Could I have done something more?”
This article does not contain legal advice and should not be relied upon as providing legal advice. April Boyer is a partner in K&L Gates’ Miami office, where she counsels and represents employers in connection with the firm’s Labor, Employment and Workplace Safety practice. www.klgates.com.
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