Tuesday, Feb 23, 2010
The State Newspaper

Manning: Employers can minimize workplace violence risks

Guest Columnist

The fatal shootings at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, should serve as a much-needed wake-up call for S.C. employers to assess and address the risk of workplace violence. As the third major workplace tragedy of 2010, this incident reminds us that violence can occur anywhere - and South Carolina's poor record with domestic violence predisposes us to spillover workplace tragedies.

As many as 1 million people are exposed to some form of workplace violence each year, and safety studies have found that the No. 2 cause of on-the-job deaths among women is workplace violence. And just as there is no way to isolate which type of business is most likely to experience workplace violence, there is no way to precisely predict when violence will occur.

In the aftermath of the Huntsville campus shootings, questions are being asked about how a person who had past encounters with violence ever could be hired. The incredulity presupposes that university officials were aware of the shooter's history or somehow missed it in the hiring process. Of course, the perpetrator had a Harvard doctorate and likely had solid references. Sterling credentials often lead to truncated background searches, and in this case, one of the prior serious events, the killing of her brother, occurred more than 20 years ago.

But such critical second-guessing serves to remind employers that employees and their families expect that reasonable steps be taken to provide safe workplaces. Employers have obligations under federal and state laws to ensure workplace safety, based on the assumption that some situations are foreseeable and preventable, typically because of the employee's background or because of observed behavior on the job. Businesses should learn from the lessons of these recent shootings and implement the following measures to reduce the risk of workplace violence:
Establish a gate keeping protocol. In other words, don't hire the risky employee. Make the effort to screen applicants. Use tight applications that seek thorough histories. Conduct background investigations to discover prior convictions, listing on sexual offender registries, litigation history, motor vehicle records, employment references, credit history, education records and other relevant background information.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission looks unfavorably on inflexible practices that use convictions as a disqualifier for employment (a position it may have to reconsider in light of the cumulative incidents of workplace violence). However, nothing prevents an employer from scrutinizing a record of arrests and convictions and delving into the particular facts before making a decision.

Create a zero-tolerance environment. Establish a written policy addressing violence, threats or abusive language and make clear that any violation of these rules can be grounds for termination. Include a procedure to confidentially report threats.

Develop procedures for investigating threats and follow through. Include specific guidelines for conducting an investigation. To the extent necessary, retain security consultants, psychologists, attorney, or other professionals for advice on how to handle threats quickly, effectively and legally. Being overzealous carries its own risks, namely the potential for defaming a wrongly accused employee.

Train supervisors and employees. Supervisors should be instructed to identify violence risks and report all threats to management immediately. They should be trained in conflict resolution, stress management, managing change in the workplace and recognizing the early warning signs of violent employees. Employees should be trained in their responsibility to report threats or violence. The key is to strengthen effective communications and issue resolution.

Conduct substance abuse testing. Private employers should test all applicants and employees for substance abuse to the extent allowed by law. Negative test results should be a condition of employment.

Implement an employee assistance program, which can help employees who are having a difficult time handling stress. Equally as important is to establish an environment that removes any stigma from voluntarily seeking assistance.

Audit and improve security measures. Establish a relationship with local law enforcement and possibly a security consultant. Conduct an audit to determine areas of vulnerability and/or procedural weaknesses. Security lighting, pass keys or cards, intercoms, employee identification, surveillance or alarm equipment and other systems or devices, should be considered. Many schools use a form of instant messaging to notify staff and authorities of lock-downs. A similar system in some workplaces might be appropriate.

We all want to believe that we work at places where we are basically safe, but there is a level of risk at every place of employment. By implementing comprehensive policies geared toward workplace safety, employers will significantly reduce the risk that their office will be the site of the next tragedy.

Mr. Manning, a partner in the Columbia office of Fisher & Phillips, helps employers with labor and employment matters. He can be reached at fmanning@laborlawyers.com or (803) 255-0000.