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Establish zero-tolerance policy on violence and threats–but don’t count on backup from courts

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in Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training,Preventing Workplace Violence

Every employer must take the threat of workplace violence seriously. Sadly, it’s a reality of working life these days. No manager wants to be the one who missed signs of trouble, only to have an employee lose control and maim or kill co-workers.

Government regulators such as OSHA hold employers responsible for workplace violence.

The almost universal employer response to increased workplace violence has been the implementation of so-called zero-tolerance policies. The idea is that by banning all forms of threatening and aggressive behavior, an employee’s behavior is less likely to escalate into tragedy.

The problem with zero-tolerance rules is that they only work if they’re uniformly enforced. Employers can’t pick and choose which employee’s behavior violates the policy. To do so invites legal trouble, as the following case shows.

Recent case: Timothy Pearson, who is black, worked for Ford Motor Co. for many years and was approaching retirement age. He had no workplace problems until a new white supervisor arrived on the scene.

According to Pearson, from that point on, he could do nothing right. Pearson said he was blamed for mistakes made by his white co-workers. Plus, he said he had been harassed because of his race.

He filed EEOC complaints and union grievances, but finally he decided he could no longer work at Ford. When Pearson applied for disability leave, Ford demanded he submit to a psychiatric examination.

During the examination, Pearson expressed his frustration and told the doctor that he sometimes felt homicidal—like “going home and getting a gun and going back in the plant and shoot somebody.” The doctor noted the statement in her report, but also recommended that Pearson try different medications and take a few months off.

Instead, Ford management immediately terminated Pearson, citing its policy of zero tolerance for threats and violence. Pearson sued, alleging that he had been fired for complaining about discrimination, not for violating the policy.

He and other witnesses reported that the automaker tolerated actual violence involving white employees without even disciplining them. Meanwhile, the company had fired Pearson, who claimed he had never engaged in physical violence and didn’t own a weapon.

The court said the case should go to trial, concluding that Ford had been lax in enforcing its policy when employees actually engaged in violence instead of merely threatening it. (Pearson v. Ford Motor Company, No. 1:08-CV-106054, SD OH, 2010)

Final note: It may be impractical to fire every employee who gets angry and threatens harm or who gets into a shoving match with a co-worker. But you can’t enforce the policy selectively.

The best approach: Give yourself the flexibility to conduct a prompt and thorough investigation. Then make your final decision on what to do based on your findings. You can, of course, suspend employees pending a decision. Then boost security, just in case.

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