Workplace violence – A hidden national tragedy

The murder of two Virginia news journalists on live TV by a disgruntled former station employee creates a sense of vulnerability in all of us. How can good people, merely doing their jobs, lose their lives at work? Though incidents of fatalities are rare, the Roanoke, Va., violence reminds us that such workplace acts are not rare enough. In fact, there are 2 million workers per year who are victims of some sort of workplace violence. So what can employees and employers do to reduce this risk?

Though there is no fail safe in preventing these inconceivable incidents from happening, there are ways to reduce the likelihood of workplace violence from happening. Reviewing policies and procedures, investing in proper training, and providing relationships that are supportive will go a long way to preventing the next threat.

The impact of workplace violence and the emotional impact on the family, coworkers, and the community are incalculable. This violence also includes billions of dollars in lost time, productivity, the cost of litigation, and the cost of added security measures.  Employees must meet threats to coworkers with counseling and quite possibly termination. Of course, employers may also use physical measures such as limiting access to buildings or workplace areas, check-in desks, increased lighting, increased surveillance, or ID cards, but these may not end threats of violence. For instance, in the Roanoke, Va., tragedy, the accused former employee acted outside the workplace.

Selecting employees and creating a workforce that diminishes the threat is essential. Employers must screen applicants at the onset. Of course, many employers perform background checks but often find it nearly impossible to receive meaningful references. There is a conspiracy of silence among employers as a result of the fear of defamation challenges. Until employers are willing to share truthful, relevant, and objective information, (which would virtually eliminate any real threat of defamation), there will always be gaps in reference checks. While an applicant’s criminal history may also be relevant, employers are cautious in using any such information, as well. They fear being accused of discriminating based on arrest or conviction records, reducing the incentive to even consider such reviews.  

Employers must then invest in training for their managers and supervisors to spot early warning signs of potential violence, and offer comprehensive communication programs so that employees, as well as potential victims, find outlets to share issues in the workplace. A well-trained human resources staff or even a workplace chaplain may be an important resource. Many employers offer employee assistance programs, which allow employees to report concerns about their own, or others’, behaviors.

As stated previously, there is no fail safe to prevent all workplace violence. Employees and their spouses or significant others, whether as a result of a mental illness, uncontrolled anger, or chemically induced, are capable of violence. However, in light of the tragedy in Virginia and ongoing costs of violence, employers must carefully review policies and procedures, invest in training, and provide relationships that are supportive. These precautions will go a long way to preventing the next threat.

Thomas Godar is a shareholder with Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek, S.C., a large multi-specialty law firm headquartered in Wisconsin. Over his 30-plus years as an attorney, Tom has devoted his practice to advising employers on employment and labor law issues. For additional questions, please contact Thomas at 608-234-6064.

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