Workplace violence is a very legitimate and scary reality. Yesterday, 34-year-old Omar Thornton walked into his Connecticut workplace and fatally shot eight people. Allegedly, Thornton was caught on camera stealing beer. He was called in to work for a disciplinary meeting and asked to resign, but he pulled out a gun and started firing.
This incident is unfortunately not isolated. Workplace violence made it into pop culture when, on August 20, 1986, a United States postal employee in Oklahoma who faced possible dismissal walked into his workplace and fatally shot 14 people before killing himself -- an incident that inspired the phrase, "going postal."
Your company may never be able to completely eliminate the risk of a similar incident occurring in your workplace, but you can take steps to minimize that chance that a disgruntled current or former employee will react violently and endanger your employees.
Workplace violence committed by employees often involves an assault by a current or former employee, supervisor or manager; a current or former spouse or lover; a relative or friend; or another individual who has a grievance with an employer or employee. Layoffs, terminations, demotions, disciplinary measures, failure to obtain a promotion or other employee complaints and grievances can spark retaliatory violence. Obsessive romantic interest that is rebuffed is another possible trigger for violence in the workplace, as is untreated mental illness.
To minimize the chance of an employee or former employee behaving violently at your workplace or otherwise physically threatening your employees, start with the basics. Promote a workplace where all employees are treated fairly and respectfully.
You should also establish a clear anti-violence management policy, apply the policy consistently and fairly to all employees, supervisors and managers, and provide appropriate supervisory and employee training in workplace violence prevention.
It's also important to quickly address complaints about sexual harassment, discrimination or retaliation. Give employees a legitimate and effective means of airing complaints, and ensure that your organization takes appropriate actions to address meritorious complaints. Thornton previously complained to his employer about racial harassment. Although it's not known whether the alleged harassment motivated Thornton to commit his violent act, certainly harassment and discrimination adversely affect employee morale and, of course, increase legal liability for employers.
The law requires most employers to report fatalities, injuries and certain specified injuries resulting from violence in the workplace to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA). The requirements contain some exceptions, however, and federal and state requirements differ somewhat from one another. CalChamber members can get more information on requirements for reporting workplace violence requirements at HRCalifornia.
Don't hesitate to call the police if you believe an employee presents a danger, especially if that employee made threats to harm himself or others. When actively engaged in a conversation with an employee who is visibly upset and who you suspect may become violent, remain calm and keep your voice and body language subdued. Obviously, it's not wise to start a yelling match with any employee, much less one who might become violent.
The USDA offers a free online handbook on workplace violence that provides suggestions on how to recognize potentially violent situations and respond to them. CalBizCentral also offers an affordable preventing workplace violence minibook. Our comprehensive Labor Law Digest devotes an entire chapter on "Violence in the Workplace" that details your duties as an employer to prevent and respond to workplace violence and includes industry-specific information.
Whatever your approach to dealing with workplace violence, it's important that you comply with legal requirements on managing, recording and responding to incidents and train all employees about how to recognize and report incidents of violent or disruptive behavior.