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Violence in the Workplace Protecting Workers and Your Business

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The recent murders of Chicago District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow's mother and husband and the shooting rampage that killed three in an Atlanta courtroom painfully reminded the legal community of its vulnerability when it comes to workplace violence. The legal community is not alone. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that between 1993 and 1999, there was an annual average of 1.7 million violent workplace victimizations. During this same time, there were also 900 workplace-related homicides annually. The National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence reports that in the year 2000, the states with the most deaths resulting from assault and other violent acts at work were California (111), Texas (103), New York (68), and Florida (66).

Most people tend to think that the perpetrators are usually a stalking spouse or a disgruntled employee, but the problem is broader than that, as the murders in Chicago and Atlanta clearly demonstrate.

Too many employers, however, don't think it can happen to them. Doing what is necessary to prepare facilities and staff for possible violence isn't a revenue-generating activity; therefore, management may not want to spend the time or money for something that may never occur. But there can be greater costs to the company above the human tragedy, notes Martha L. Lester, Esq., Director at Lowenstein Sandler, P.C., in Roseland, NJ, who serves as the chair of her firm's Employment Law Practice Group. Employers can face problems with lost time and productivity, lower morale, property damage, diminished public image, litigation costs, and costs of increased security measures.

Employer liability

Employers can have vicarious liability when an employee's actions further the employer's business and are done within the scope of that business. There would be no liability if the employee engaged in acts for personal convenience or outside the scope of business, or if the acts were not foreseeable.

They may also find themselves liable under common law theories of liability, such as negligent hiring, improper training, or negligent retention. For instance, says Lester, companies that do not perform background or reference checks or don't train or supervise employees to identify people who may be at risk for committing violence or threats may be held liable if an employee turns out to be a risk to others. The same can be true of companies that retain employees after finding out they have histories of harassment or assault, especially if the employer has not warned other employees about the potential for violence.

Finally, employers can be held liable for not creating a safe workplace or premises. Maybe the employer doesn't have the right lighting in its parking lot, or it doesn't lock the bathrooms after hours.

Lester noted that employers who have strong anti-violence and anti-harassment policies can focus on the behavior of individuals, instead of a specific person's issue and can help ensure that the policies apply to all employees.

Protect your workers and your company

There are a variety of ways you can protect your workplace, says Lester:
  • Have screening procedures appropriate to your applicants. Usually, this means background and reference checks and drug screening.
  • Train supervisors and managers to recognize the warning signs of a potentially violent person: someone who becomes irrational, drastically changes his/her behavioral or belief system, no longer bathes, and/or starts intimidating others or calling co-workers names. Also, teach management how to de-escalate the situation.
  • Have a written anti-violence/harassment policy that states the company will not tolerate any violence or threats of violence in the workplace. It should also let employees know that they are expected to report any such acts on the premises and provide clear instructions on how to do so. All employees should receive copies of this policy in addition to some form of training.
  • Promote employee-assistance or counseling programs.
  • Form a safety committee to help identify potential problem areas. Also, send a questionnaire to all employees, asking them what they perceive as dangerous in the workplace.
  • Conduct a physical inspection of your worksite. Some employers have local law enforcement or firefighters come in and look at the premises—first, to familiarize themselves with the site in the event of violence and second, to identify any areas of special concern. Are fire extinguishers in the right places? Are there first aid kits? Are people trained in CPR?
  • Consider installing panic buttons at both reception areas and restrooms.
  • Limit entrances and exits. Have visitors sign in to the premises. Many companies have their employees wear ID badges.
  • If there are employees who work late at night or in high-crime areas, consider security guards or escorts or having special security phone numbers.
  • Prepare for the aftermath. Keep emergency contact information on- and off-site. Have counseling available for employees and family members. Appoint a spokesperson. Be ready to file insurance forms. Consult with counsel.
Law offices and courtrooms

As the cases in Atlanta and Chicago confirm, the legal profession is not immune to violent outbreaks. "We are a service-oriented business," says Lester. "Therefore, a disgruntled client who is disappointed with results—or an unhappy spouse—can wreak havoc in the workplace." If you have an employee you are especially worried about— maybe an attorney in a controversial case or a paralegal with a restraining order against her spouse—you may suggest he/she buddy up with others when traveling to and from work. Other helpful ideas include altering his/her work schedule so he/she isn't coming and going at the same time every day and giving that employee a parking space nearest the entranceway.

And there is one simple piece of advice. "Never underestimate the value of the police," Lester emphasizes. "If you feel you have a disgruntled employee who you feel may wish to do harm to your employees or business, call the police."

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