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Minnesota Tragedy: A Stark Reminder to Implement Anti-Violence Policies
By Ted Boehm, Fisher & Phillips LLP
A recent shooting-death at a business in Minneapolis serves as a somber reminder to employers of the perils of workplace violence.
On September 27, an employee killed five co-workers and injured three others before taking his own life at the workplace. The shootings occurred during a meeting in which managers were terminating the employee for his chronic tardiness and poor performance. The employee, who had received a written reprimand for his performance issues one week earlier, apparently pulled out a concealed handgun and began shooting immediately after his managers terminated him and handed him his final paycheck. There are reports that the employee may have suffered from a mental illness and that he had begun acting aggressively at work. However, the employee apparently had no history of making actual threats against co-workers.
Such incidents are an employer’s worst nightmare, and recent data suggests that workplace violence occurs more frequently than might be expected. A 2012 survey from AlliedBarton Security Services entitled the “Violence in the American Workplace” revealed that 52% of Americans who work outside their home “have witnessed, heard about or have experienced a violent event or an event that can lead to violence at their workplace.” The survey specifically linked the likelihood of workplace violence to low employee morale. Most seriously, there were 506 workplace homicides in 2010, the most recent year in which such statistics have been published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on the issue.
As the tragedy in Minnesota demonstrates, there will not always be obvious warning signs before an incident of workplace violence occurs. As a result, employers should not wait until an employee makes a direct threat before addressing the issue. Employers should look for more subtle red flags from potentially troubled employees. For example, employers should take note of employees who exhibit dramatic changes of attitude, erratic behavior, or loss of productivity. Employers need to regularly gauge the morale of their workforce and monitor situations that could develop into physical confrontations.
Properly educating employees about handling workplace disputes is critical. Employers should use this recent tragedy as an opportunity to update and re-introduce “anti-violence” work policies so that employees are on notice that such behavior will not be tolerated. A “zero tolerance” policy is the best means of communicating the seriousness with which employers take the issue. Managers and supervisors should be trained (or re-trained) on conflict resolution policies. Looking for criminal convictions for violence when conducting background checks on job applicants is another good way of addressing the problem before it ever develops.
Employers should also address other possible causes of fatal workplace violence, including workplace bullying. While schoolyard bullying has received significant media attention in recent years, “co-worker bullying,’ or “workplace bullying” is an under-reported issue, but one with potentially dangerous consequences. If unchecked, workplace bullying can lead to violent encounters between co-workers or between employees and supervisors. Such behavior can also make employers face claims for unlawful harassment or wrongful death lawsuits in the cases of workplace homicides.
In fact, the workplace bullying issue has prompted several states to consider legislation in recent years. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, the “Healthy Workplace Bill” has been introduced in 23 states since 2003, although no state has adopted the bill as law yet. Advocates of workplace bullying legislation are now turning to organized labor for support. According to recent reports, the Service Employees International Union is now seeking anti-bullying provisions in collective bargaining agreements with employers. These provisions would clearly delineate the process by which employees could report instances of bullying.
Another movement at the state level that figures into the workplace violence issue is legislation which gives employees the right to keep firearms in their vehicles at work. At least 13 states have now passed laws that allow employees to keep firearms in their vehicles while at work. These “parking lot gun laws” were enacted in response to the restrictions that many private employers have against allowing guns to be stored in workplace parking lots. Of course employers established these rules to decrease the likelihood of workplace shootings. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009), there were 420 fatalities as a result of workplace shootings.
There are a number of legal and interpersonal issues that employers must consider in order minimize the risk of violent episodes in the workplace. The best way that employers can minimize these risks is through education, regular training, proactive monitoring and consistent enforcement of anti-violence policies. By fostering an atmosphere that prioritizes mutual respect and free communication, employers are less likely to experience tragedies such as the recent Minnesota shooting.