It’s a legitimate workplace fear: Someone with emotional or mental problems will act out against co-workers. Sometimes, the consequences are deadly.

Most of the time, threats of violence are just words. But words are enough to justify firing an employee who expresses intent to do harm, because of the fear that it instills in others.

Recent case: Alonza Baker, who is black, worked as a network administrator for a government agency. When management decided to make staffing changes to handle a budget shortfall, the agency head instructed executive Rachel Lawson to start trimming jobs at the top. Those who lost their jobs could then bump down into lower positions.

Since Baker was the top IT employee, he was selected for the layoff. He bumped others below him until he landed in a spot that paid $22,000 less than his old job. He appealed the layoff through the civil service commission and was eventually reinstated to his old job.

But Baker, a Vietnam veteran who kept an explosive as a souvenir from his time in the service, apparently was angry with Lawson. He told his counselor that he realized he could use the explosive to do harm to Lawson, so he asked for help in disposing of it. The counselor called the police, who charged Baker with reckless endangerment.

The incident so frightened Lawson that the agency decided it had to terminate Baker. He sued, alleging race discrimination.

The court dismissed his case, concluding that the agency had good reason to terminate Baker—he had placed his supervisor in fear for her life. There was no evidence that this was not the real reason he was fired and no indication anyone involved in the decision considered race. (Baker v. City of Philadelphia, No. 09-4355, 3rd Cir., 2010)

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