Recent events have employers once again wondering if they do enough to address the risk of workplace violence. After a mass shooting, for example, businesses and other organizations sometimes look back with 20/20 hindsight and notice warning signs that they might have overlooked. A durable workplace violence prevention plan may help employers identify the hard-to-detect signs of potentially problematic behavior. Below are some considerations when formulating workplace violence plans.
Breadth of Scope and Application
A workplace violence plan often defines workplace violence broadly, so that the plan applies to a wide range of potentially problematic behaviors. An example definition is, “any act of aggression, or threat of an act of aggression, including verbally abusive behavior, that threatens the safety, security, or well-being of an individual who is at work or on duty.” This definition is sufficiently broad to apply to acts as well as “threats” to both employees at work and those who are simply “on duty,” such as employees traveling or working remotely. It also may encompass “verbally abusive behavior” that may fall short of a violent act or threatened act. In addition, a broad plan may also address risks posed not just by employees/coworkers, but also by (i) people without any relationship to the company (i.e., a random aggressor); (ii) people who receive services, such as customers, patients, passengers, or clients; and (iii) third parties who have personal relationships with employees (e.g., domestic partners).
A workplace violence prevention plan may help managers identify specific types of behaviors that are warning signs of potential future violence. Training frontline managers—the eyes and ears of many businesses—to recognize these behaviors is often useful. The plan may create a response team or point of contact, so that managers and all employees know where and how to report concerns. An employer may want to ensure that this point of contact is familiar with company resources and able to coordinate rapidly and as necessary with security, local law enforcement, and employee assistance programs (EAP).
There are multiple strategies for responding to attempted mass violence. One approach is to instruct employees to run (exit and escape harm’s way); hide (shelter in place, if escape is not possible); or fight (if running and hiding are not possible). Training on “run, hide, fight” can be conducted by law enforcement in some locales, and it may teach employees about specific tactics for escaping, effectively hiding and barricading, and fighting. Whatever plan an employer determines is right for its workplace will most likely teach employees how to react as quickly as possible to protect their own safety.
In addition to serving employers’ paramount interest in protecting employee safety, a workplace violence plan may also help limit the risk of legal liability. Some hostile or violent acts are motivated by race, religion, or other protected characteristics, and they potentially implicate employment discrimination claims. Further, state law claims permitting recovery of punitive damages may be available to victims of workplace violence, particularly if the violence was foreseeable to an employer. Such legal theories may include negligent hiring, training, and/or supervision; premises liability; and respondeat superior (where an employer is held vicariously liable for acts of certain employees), among others. By enforcing an effective workplace violence plan, employers may be able to reduce the risk that they will miss warning signs that may, in retrospect, support a case for legal liability.