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Aug 01 2012

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When an employee threatens violence, what's an employer to do?

By Sheryl Jaffee Halpern

Issue:
As the summer heat soars, so have tempers at your workplace. The behavior of one employee has been particularly disturbing, and you just learned that he recently threatened a coworker. How can you protect the safety of your employees and help guard against any legal ramifications of a threat or violent incident?

Answer:
Be prepared. In the unfortunate event that a credible threat of violence arises, established protocols and awareness can help address the issues promptly. Sheryl Jaffee Halpern, principal with the Chicago-based law firm of Much Shelist, offers the following tips:

Establish and disseminate an anti-violence policy. Creating awareness of procedures to follow in the event of actual violence or the threat of violence is critical. An employer’s personnel manual should include a policy that, at a minimum, prohibits violence and threats in the workplace (including those made in jest) and requires employees to report all related incidents.

Of course, in a crisis situation, employees likely will not have time to consult the manual. However, implementing a policy and reviewing it with employees at least annually can help keep protocols top of mind and enable employees to stay calm in the face of a threat or actual violence.

Assess the threat. In the event an employee threatens violence, an employer should first assess the seriousness of the threat in order to determine an appropriate course of action. What were the circumstances? Does the employee have a history of erratic behavior? What was the tone of the threat? How specific was it?

For example, there may be a significant difference between an employee’s offhand remark (“I could just kill my supervisor for making me work this weekend instead of going to the concert. Now I’ll need to sell my tickets on StubHub.”) and a specific threat emailed to a coworker (“Jane turned me down for the last time. I have my brother-in-law’s gun, and I’ll be waiting for her when the plant opens on Monday.”)

An employer should weigh all facts in order to assess the seriousness of the threat. If time permits, consider involving a forensic psychologist or an outside investigator.

Implement security measures. If a credible threat is identified, an employer should take steps to promptly implement security measures designed to protect its workforce. The nature and extent of these measures will vary depending on the circumstances, including preexisting security in the workplace, the nature and seriousness of the threat, and the employee’s behavioral history.

An employer’s actions may include changing locks and access codes, securing doors that ordinarily are left open, alerting key employees to the threat, reviewing safety protocols with all employees, and hiring onsite security personnel. If the threat involves imminent harm, an employer should immediately contact law enforcement authorities, lock down facilities, and consult with legal counsel.

Focus on maintaining peace in the workplace. Employers can protect the safety of their employees and reduce the likelihood of workplace violence by following a few simple guidelines:

  • Proactively create and maintain a positive work environment;
  • Treat terminated employees with courtesy and respect, including providing onsite outplacement support to help diffuse emotions and refocusing affected employees on productive steps to move forward; and
  • Provide avenues for employees to complain within the company so that they do not feel as if threatening or committing violence is the only way to be heard.

Source: Employee Benefit News


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