Workplace Violence Risk Assessment: Lessons from the Tragedy in Alabama

Yesterday, one of every employer’s worst nightmares became reality again—this time at a UPS facility in Alabama. While the details are still coming in and the investigation is on-going, the news is reporting that a recently terminated employee, still wearing his UPS uniform, entered the facility and shot two supervisors before killing himself. We don’t know why the individual was terminated; if there were any warning signs, or what steps the employer may have taken in an attempt to prevent such an event. And to the families of everyone involved and to everyone who worked there, right now, those details probably do not matter very much. What matters is that regardless of what warnings were or weren’t heeded or what assessments were or weren’t done, three people lost their lives, families lost loved ones, and those who witnessed the event will be forever altered. So, before we learn facts that will allow us to convince ourselves such tragedy couldn’t happen to us because we would have done something differently, we need to take this opportunity to realize that work place violence is real and as human resources professionals and business owners, we must assess the risk and take reasonable steps to protect our employees.

I often receive calls from clients asking for a risk assessment related to a termination decision. Before they terminate an employee’s employment, they want to know their risk for being sued, for the employee receiving unemployment, etc. As a matter of course now, after a termination decision is made, I ask employers for their own assessment of safety risk: has the employee been violent before? Do they have reason, however slight, to be concerned about how the employee will react to the termination? What security measures are already in place? Should additional measures be taken for the next few days in light in the termination? Some employers seem relieved I ask because they had a nagging concern, but felt “silly” voicing it—”what are the chances something bad would really happen,” they say. My response is always, “I’d rather you be safe than sorry.”

So what does being safe mean? Here are five questions to ask yourself in performing a workplace violence assessment, especially in light of a termination:

1.    How Does Someone Enter Your Building? Each client has a slightly different answer to this question: Maybe you have one door that is not locked that leads into a public lobby with a receptionist; Maybe you have one unlocked door that leads into a small lobby with locked doors into the facility; maybe you have several doors that are open to the public; maybe you have one door that is open to the public, but from there, an intruder could easily gain access to the rest of the facility. Whatever the answer, consider if logistically, without significantly impacting your business, you could make public access to your facility more controlled. Of course if you are a retail establishment or restaurant, that simply isn’t an option. However, if you are a warehouse or manufacturing operation, it may be. If the public and thus a disgruntled employee or employee’s family member could easily access your facility and your employees, then when you are faced with a security concern, you are going to need to increase security.

2.    What Do You Communicate to Your Employees? If you have terminated an employee, you should notify your employees that the terminated employee is no longer employed. You do not need to tell the employees the fact that the employee was terminated, the circumstances surrounding the termination, or any other details. If feasible given your business, you also need to let them know that the terminated employee should not be back on premises and if the employee comes to the premises, you should be contacted (or if the employee has made threats, call 9-1-1).

3.    What Do You Communicate to the Terminated Employee? This one goes hand in hand with number 2 above. When you terminate an employee, if feasible, as a matter of course, you should tell the employee that he is not to be back on company property unless he has pre-arranged the appointment through you. This is incredibly helpful because then if the employee does show up unannounced, you already know that he is doing so in violation of your instruction. Further, if the terminated employee has made threats or exhibited concerning behavior, you will know to call 9-1-1.

4.    Do You Have a Workplace Violence Policy? Your handbook should contain a policy prohibiting workplace violence, threats, and weapons. It also should provide a way for employees to report concerns related to other employees or third parties. I suggest that this policy mirror your harassment and discrimination reporting procedures. It also should instruct employees that in the case of imminent danger to call 9-1-1.

5.    Is It Time to Call for Extra Security? If you decide you are performing a termination with risk, you have several options for adding security to your facility. First, you can notify local law enforcement that you are conducting a termination that you believe has some risk and ask them to step up patrols around your area and notify their officers. I have found that most local law enforcement agencies are very cooperative and willing to assist. Second, you can hire law enforcement to be a presence in the parking lot both during the termination and afterwards. Third, you can have a plain clothes police person or security person near the office where the termination is occurring or even have a uniformed police presence in the building if you think appropriate. Finally, you can hire law enforcement or security to sit in your lobby or other public entry point for a couple of weeks after the termination.

Assessing risk is not an exact science and we can’t all live in bubbles with metal detectors at every door; but, we can listen to our instincts and take reasonable steps to protect our employees and our customers. My thoughts and prayers are with those affected in Alabama. May we take this tragedy as an opportunity to prevent future ones.

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