THE LAW. Employees who commit violent acts in the workplace obviously violate state criminal laws. But the liability trail doesn't stop there.
Employers have a legal obligation to maintain a safe work environment for employees and customers. If employees "go bad," the organization could face a negligent hiring or negligent supervision lawsuit if it could have or should have prevented the violent act.
That means you should run background checks to ferret out applicants most likely to commit violence. But beware a host of state and federal laws relating to hiring or investigating, including the (FCRA) and the new Fair and Accurate Credit Trans-actions Act (FACTA).
WHAT'S NEW. FACTA, which took effect June 1, 2005, is designed to minimize identity theft. It requires you to properly dispose of personalized em-ployee information, such as Social Security numbers and financial account info, that you collect duringor workplace investigations. That includes shredding paper documents or erasing electronic ones.
Also, employers sometimes request an "investigative consumer report" on an employee when looking into any workplace wrongdoing. Thanks to FACTA, employers no longer need the employee's permission to obtain such a report.
HOW TO COMPLY. To prevent workplace violence, your first goal is to "separate the hazards." Use good workplace design to keep the maximum area off limits to the public.
Why is that important? Workplaces that are open to the public are the most likely to experience violence, says a survey conducted by Security Direc-tor's Report magazine.
On average, such "all access" organizations suffer 1.81 violent incidents per 100 employees. Workplaces evenly split between public and employee-only areas face .81 incidents per 100 employees. And workplaces that allow no public access have a negligible .06 incidents per 100.
The lesson: Employees aren't usually a threat to each other. But access by former employees, significant others or the general public raises your risk significantly.
If your workplace does allow public access, don't arm your employees to defend themselves. Workplaces that permit employees to carry guns experience five times the rate of homicides than those that prohibit guns, says an Ameri-can Journal of Public Health study.
Background checks. While it's vital to perform background checks, realize that key information is often left off, especially with online reference-checking services. That's because many jurisdictions lack money or manpower to maintain electronic conviction records. And youthful offender records are usually expunged at age 18. So it's easy for a violent applicant to hide his past.
If you don't spot a violent person before he joins the payroll, it's important to react quickly once violent tendencies appear. Employees who argue loudly or engage in other disruptive behavior should be disciplined.
Some employers have a "zero tolerance policy," where any infraction means termination. In most cases, that's not a good policy. Giving employees an opportunity to cool down teaches them more about handling anger than enraging them with a pink slip. Also, you'll set yourself up for a discrimination suit if a star employee blows his top one time, but you don't act.
Finally, you should thoroughly document all disciplinary decisions. Manage those documents in accordance with federal laws.
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