It’s heartbreaking to write another article about workplace violence — especially when it occurred in our sister city of Virginia Beach.

There are too few facts at this point to determine why a city employee opened fire on his peers, killing 11 colleagues and a contractor who worked for Henrico County-based Eagle Construction of Virginia.

Regardless of the facts in the Virginia Beach matter, all employers can be reminded to not wait for the next act of workplace violence before implementing strategies, policies and training to stop all forms of workplace threats ahead of time and teach employees to recognize and report concerning behaviors.

While there remains no formula to definitively determine when, or if, an individual will engage in an act of workplace violence, there are some common observations.

Experts and studies show generally that:

  • Rarely are “direct” threats made to co-workers before an act of violence;
  • Rarely are acts of workplace violence spontaneous; and
  • Rarely are there no signs that someone is escalating.

In many cases, workplace violence results from a troubled person in a troubling situation.

This might include an individual who otherwise has mental illness such as bipolar, or depression or other issues coupled with a troubling situation like divorce, a custody battle, financial difficulties, workplace bullying or workplace pressure or discipline.

Employers should implement policies that prohibit any forms of aggressive behavior, or behavior that undermines collegiality or teamwork.

I have seen too often employers who tolerate intimidating and bizarre behavior that makes others uncomfortable in the workplace.

Implement a true zero tolerance for any forms of conduct that are unprofessional, abusive, intimidating, hostile, disrespectful, or that could reasonably make another person feel uncomfortable.

Addressing these behaviors early will set the standard. When employers allow bad or intimidating conduct to fester, the situation can escalate.

For example, a co-worker observed that an employee put the face of Charles Manson on a company poster that had the word “Impact” on it. The employee thought it was a good parody since Charles Manson didn’t actually kill anyone. The co-worker said he also saw the employee viewing assault weapons on the internet.

After the employee received a final warning for the conduct, the employee sought a removal of the warning, stating that he had bipolar disorder.

In the meantime, a review of his computer showed that he accessed websites that contained violent images, assault weaponry and serial killers. The computer also contained pictures of a rifle that appeared to be taken at someone’s home and some pictures were of an assault weapon with a silencer and bayonet.

The company terminated him for loss of confidence. Thereafter, security measures were increased, including an armed guard at the workplace and supplying personal protection for the employees who lodged complaints.

The employee sued the employer, claiming the employer failed to provide a reasonable accommodation and he was terminated due to his disability. Dismissing the case, the court reiterated that “taking action because of fear of potential violence is a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for adverse employment action.”

If an employee engages in conduct that leads you to think twice — think twice. Address it right away, even if the conduct occurs after hours.

Too often employers are paralyzed by fear causing them to avoid taking action.

Situations like these are admittedly extremely difficult and complex matters, and employers should seek assistance from workplace violence experts such as the Threat Assessment Group to make sure their timing and approach places them in best opportunity for a positive outcome.

Karen Michael is an attorney with Richmond-based KarenMichael PLC. She can be reached at kmichael@karenmichaelconsulting.com.

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