5 ways for Pennsylvania employers to prevent workplace violence

I remember about a month ago reading a post on Daniel Schwartz’s Connecticut Employment Law Blog about a shooting involving a Connecticut employer. Actually, at the time, I only skimmed the article. Nine dead. Tragic event. But it happened several hundred miles away.

On September 9, in Northeast Philly, my backyard, an employee who claimed she was fed up with years of constant harassment from neighbors and co-workers, returned to work after her shift had ended clutching a .357 magnum. According to a news report from Philly.com, she pointed the gun at two unarmed security guards — the employer had already taken some precautions against a potential episode of workplace violence — and ordered them to the gate. After the guards allowed the armed employee to enter, she went to a break room where she found four employees. After ordering one to leave, the disgruntled employee opened fire on the other three. Two died at the scene. One is in critical condition

I offer five preventative solutions after the jump…

Senseless violence — right in my backyard. Needless to say, I have re-read every single word of Daniel Schwartz’s workplace violence article.

I wish I had THE solution; the one that I could gift-wrap for employers to ensure that nothing like this could ever happen at their workplace, to their employees, their employees’ families, friends and loved ones.

But I don’t have it.

How should Pennsylvania employers address workplace violence?

While I don’t have THE solution, I do have several suggestions that address the root of the problem, before the onset of violence when, in most cases, it’s too late to do anything except run for cover:

1. Screen your employees. Use an third-party for pre-employment screening. Carefully tailor interview questions, background and reference checks, and drug testing if it is appropriate for the position and consistent with federal, state and local laws and regulations.

2. Train your employees. The Philly.com article covering the Philadelphia shooting says that the shooter felt that she had been subjected to years of workplace harassment. YEARS! Now I don’t know what kind of policy the employer had in place to address workplace harassment — unlawful or otherwise. But, suffice it to say, the shooter felt that her issues had gone unaddressed. So, as an employer, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your employee handbook explain — in plain speak — how to report claims of workplace harassment — unlawful or otherwise?
  • Do you then take the next step and train your employees how to report?
  • Do you train your managers how to handle employee complaints?
  • How often are you conducting training?
  • Are you following up with employees and managers between trainings?

3. Identify the warning signs. According to this workplace violence prevention guide, the following are just some of the indicators that can signal the risk potential of violent episodes:

  • Sudden and persistent complaining about being treated unfairly
  • Blaming of others for personal problems
  • Sudden change in behavior, deterioration in job performance
  • Statement that he or she would like something bad to happen to supervisor or another coworker
  • Paranoid behavior
  • Sudden increased absenteeism
  • Sexually harassing, or obsessing about a co-worker: sending unwanted gifts, notes, unwanted calling, stalking

4. Consider implementing an Employee Assistance Program. An Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, is a counseling service administered by a third party which is designed to help employees deal with problems. These programs are often best suited for employees with alcohol and controlled substance addictions, but they also benefit those with emotional issues or, really, anyone who needs to talk about a personal problem.

5. Remove direct threats. Spotting imminent threats in the workplace is difficult. And many employers — for fear of lawsuit — are reluctant to take an adverse employment action against an employee who appears mentally unstable. But remember, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employer has no obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee who poses a direct threat to either herself or to other employees. The employer can (and should) fire that employee.

Sadly, Daniel Schwartz’s final paragraph to his blog post came true way too fast.

Indeed, as we look for answers from this tragedy, perhaps its best to acknowledge that we can never truly understand what brings people to commit evil and that despite whatever efforts we might make, something like this will sadly happen again.

Unfortunately, the tragedy that hit both Connecticut and Pennsylvania will strike again. Hopefully, however, not too soon.

Other helpful resources on workplace violence prevention:

“Doing What’s Right – Not Just What’s Legal”
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