The impact of workplace violence and the emotional impact on the family, co-workers and the community is incalculable. This violence also includes billions of dollars in lost time, productivity, the cost of litigation and the cost of added security measures. Employers must meet threats to co-workers with counseling and quite possibly termination. Of course, employers may also use physical measures, such as limiting access to buildings or workplace areas, check-in desks, increased lighting, increased surveillance and ID cards, but these may not end threats of violence. For instance, in the Roanoke tragedy, the accused former employee acted outside the workplace.
Selecting employees and creating a workforce that diminishes the threat is essential. Employers must screen applicants at the onset. Of course, many employers perform background checks but often find it nearly impossible to receive meaningful references. There is a conspiracy of silence among employers as a result of the fear of defamation challenges. Until employers are willing to share truthful, relevant and objective information (which would virtually eliminate any real threat of defamation), there will always be gaps in reference checks. While an applicant’s criminal history may also be relevant, employers are cautious in using any such information, as well. They fear being accused of discriminating based on arrest or conviction records, reducing the incentive to even consider such reviews.
Employers must then invest in training for their managers and supervisors to spot early warning signs of potential violence, and offer comprehensive communication programs so that employees, as well as potential victims, find outlets to share issues in the workplace. A well-trained human resources staff or even a workplace chaplain may be an important resource. Many employers offer Employee Assistance Programs, which allow employees to report concerns over their own or others’ behaviors.
As stated previously, there is no fail-safe to prevent all workplace violence. Employees and their spouses or significant others, whether as a result of a mental illness, uncontrolled anger, or chemically induced, are capable of violence. However, in light of the tragedy in Virginia and ongoing costs of violence, employers must carefully review policies and procedures, invest in training, and provide relationships that are supportive. These precautions will go a long way to preventing the next threat.
Thomas Godar is a shareholder with Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C., a large multi-specialty law firm headquartered in Wisconsin.