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Workplace Violence Prevention

Preventing Workplace Violence: Challenges and Dilemmas

James Madero | January 1, 2005

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Workplace violence comes in many forms and faces. Companies and organizations that develop, train, and empower Workplace Violence Prevention teams to address the myriad of risks facing today's employers can reduce the number of tragic work incidents.

Workplace Violence Prevention Teams are confronted with a variety of incidents, some of which are easy to resolve, while others are more difficult. The difficult ones are not only challenging, but sometimes create dilemmas that need to be resolved. Consider the following three incidents.

The Terminated Employee

A manufacturing plant located in a suburban industrial park terminated one of its employees for threatening to kill his supervisor after the supervisor had given him a poor performance review. As he stormed out of the plant after being told he was fired, the terminated employee vowed he would be back and "get even" for what was done to him.

The terminated employee had been difficult to manage from the onset of his employment 9 months earlier. He had been involved in several angry confrontations with coworkers, and had even gotten into a fight with a coworker the evening before the termination. The fight took place in a bar, and the coworker was seriously injured, and needed to be taken to the emergency room for treatment.

Even though the terminated employee was no longer working at the plant, his employer was confronted with several challenges and dilemmas. The challenges included trying to decide (1) whether the terminated employee's threats were real, (2) what he meant by "getting even," (3) if the threats were real, what could be done to prevent them from happening, and (4) how long would the employer need to be concerned about the threats.

The dilemmas were twofold. First, should the police be notified and/or should the employer obtain a restraining order, and risk enraging the terminated employee even more, possibly to the point of his carrying though with his threats? Second, what should be communicated to the other 85 employees at the plant? What should they be told about the termination, and more importantly, does the company have an obligation to inform them of the threats? If they are informed, does the employer risk being accused of slander and or defamation of character by the terminated employee?

The Furious Client

A small law firm in the Midwest represented a client who was involved in contesting a will left by his parents. The law firm specialized in preparing wills and financial trusts. Unfortunately for the client and the law firm, the judge in the case ruled against the client. The client became enraged after the judge's decision. He not only thought that he was right and the judge was wrong, but more importantly, he believed he had a "slam-dunk" case, and lost primarily because of the incompetence of his attorney.

The client not only refused to pay for his attorney's services, but also demanded that the law firm pay him for what he lost in court. He told the law firm that one way or another he would "make them pay."

The challenge for the law firm involved assessing the client's potential for violence, and trying to determine what the client meant by "one way or other." The dilemma for the law firm occurred as they attempted to assess the client's potential for violence. The firm's knowledge of the client was based primarily on the facts of his case and the few interactions they had with him prior to the case being heard. These interactions were essentially positive, probably because of the client's certainty about winning the case.

Now that he had lost, he was behaving quite differently. The law firm decided to learn as much as they could about the client. They wanted very much to do a thorough background check on him, including checking the criminal and civil courts, looking at his driving record, and doing a credit check. One of the attorneys in the firm had some familiarity with the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the limitations it imposed on doing background checks on someone without their consent. Would the law firm be able to obtain the information they needed about the client without violating any law?

The Violent Spouse

The female manager of restaurant informed her district manager that she was involved in an extremely bad domestic violence situation. Her husband of 5 years had been physically abusing her for the past 6 months. Several times a week he would hit her and throw her against a wall. She attempted to leave him several times during the marriage, but each time she backed down because he threatened to kill her if she left. Two weeks ago he began hitting her with a chair after he accused her of having an affair with one of her coworkers. She told the district manager that she was planning to leave her husband, move to her own apartment, and not tell her husband its location.

The biggest challenge for the employer involved tying to assist and support the female employee while maintaining a safe work environment for its customers and other employees. The dilemma for the employer was that these tasks might be mutually exclusive. Once the employee moves out on her husband, she would need her job more than ever, since it would be her sole source of support. However, moving out on him and not telling him where she was living made it more likely that he would confront her at the workplace. Additionally, if he thinks she is having an affair with a coworker, the risk to the workplace is even greater. The employer is caught between the proverbial "rock and a hard place."

Solutions and Resolutions

The challenges and dilemmas presented in the above incidents are similar to those faced by members of Workplace Violence Prevention Teams across the country. The potential solutions and resolutions are sometimes difficult to achieve, but for the most part are attainable when the skills of each Team member are utilized.

In the case of the Terminated Employee, the Team's Threat Assessment Specialist can help ascertain whether the employee's threats were real, and to what extent and manner is he likely to act on them. An action plan to prevent harm to coworkers and the company's assets will require the input of all Team Members, with Security most likely taking the lead. The decisions involving notifying the police, obtaining a Restraining Order, and determining when the threat to the workplace ceases are Team discussions with Legal, Security, and the Threat Assessment Specialist taking the lead in the discussions. Questions involving the extent to which employees need to be notified and the issues of slander and defamation of character are best address by the Legal Team member.

In the case of the Furious Client, once again the Team's Threat Assessment Specialist should take the lead in assessing the client's potential for violence and the likelihood of the client acting on his threats. A comprehensive background check will be essential to the Threat Assessment Specialist's evaluation and recommendation. The dilemma of whether the law firm can do the background check without violating any laws can best be determined by consultation with an attorney who specializes in labor law. There have been instances when the need to prevent a homicide or serious injuries are weighed against the limitations imposed by the laws that are on the books. There have been times when the Team does a risk-benefit analysis, and the decision is made that the need to save lives and prevent serious harm outweighs the legal ramifications of the situation. As one attorney said, "I would rather defend an invasion of privacy case than a wrongful death claim."

In the case of the Violent Spouse, the Team's actions need to be carefully—but quickly—deliberated before any action takes place. In most instances, placing the female employee on paid leave for several days can considerably diminish the risk to the workplace and give the Team some time to evaluate the situation and develop a response plan. If the employee is involved in a relationship with a coworker, this needs to be quickly ascertained, since it poses an additional threat to the workplace and may necessitate also placing the coworker on leave.

As the Team manages the case, referrals are usually made to the employee that include the company's Employee Assistance Program, a Domestic Violence Prevention Organization, and the local police department. These organizations are in the best position to discuss the different options available to the employee. Most Teams defer to these organizations rather than attempting to give advice to the employee on how to deal with her spouse and his behavior.

The challenges and dilemmas discussed herein are typical of those encountered by Workplace Violence Prevention Teams across the country. While many of the challenges and dilemmas can be quite daunting, the field of Workplace Violence Prevention has matured to the point that Teams now have the skill sets, resources, and processes and procedures to successfully manage and resolve the overwhelming majority of incidents that occur.

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