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Employers are legally obligated to maintain a safe work environment. When employees commit violent acts against co-workers or customers, employers can be held responsible through negligent-hiring and supervision lawsuits.

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In April 2007, an auditor, fired from his job at a suburban Detroit tax firm, returned a week later with a 12-gauge shotgun and shot a receptionist and two senior partners. In August 2007, an employee, fired from his job at a New York City apartment complex, shot his former supervisor and injured two more people after losing a discrimination lawsuit.

Each year roughly 1,000 people are workplace homicide victims. And research shows that killings are five to seven times more likely to occur at workplaces where guns are allowed.

Yet the traditional right of employers to prohibit guns from company facilities and parking lots recently has come under fire from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other interest groups. Five states have passed laws prohibiting employers from banning guns from their properties, and many more are considering such laws. The high-profile Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007 put a damper on the NRA’s campaign, causing several legislatures to table the issue, but the war over guns at work is far from over.

How to comply

1. Consider facility security. Limit access to work areas wherever possible.

2. Publish a workplace violence and weapons policy that clearly outlines unacceptable behavior and consequences.

3. Conduct criminal background checks on all employees who have contact with customers or sensitive areas of the company. Background checks are not foolproof, and many people who become violent do not have a criminal record. But thorough background checks, including calling several personal and professional references, are a powerful protection for employers. Employers have successfully defended themselves against negligent-hiring charges by showing that they thoroughly screened applicants.

Many employers now use a “verification only” policy for references, confirming only the former worker’s title, length of employment and salary. If you encounter this response, try asking questions off the record. Many HR professionals will honor such requests as a courtesy. Few employers wish to pass along a violent employee without providing some clue.

4. Take employee threats seriously. Sixty percent of major employers said that disgruntled employees had threatened to assault or kill senior managers in 2005. Act swiftly and decisively in response to any threatening behavior. Also, encourage employees to talk to a supervisor or HR staff if they are concerned about a co-worker’s behavior. Offer counseling or assistance to employees who seem unusually stressed or depressed. Ignoring such signs puts employees at risk and increases your exposure to negligent-supervision charges.

5. Separate employees to avoid confrontations. Schedule employees who don’t get along with each other for opposite shifts when possible.

6. Encourage managers faced with firing an employee or delivering unpleasant news to bring in reinforcements from HR, security or fellow managers. Discourage managers from handling difficult employees or situations alone. A trucker who worked for an Ohio transportation firm shot his supervisor and a security chief after being fired in August 2007. Tragically, the supervisor brought in security because he anticipated trouble. In this case, preventive measures failed.

7. Thoroughly document all disciplinary decisions. Manage those documents in accordance with federal laws.

8. Consider anti-violence training. If classroom sessions are not in your budget, try web-based tools. OSHA offers a free Workplace Violence Awareness Course at www.wpv.devis.com.

Online resources

The National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence web site, at www.workplaceviolence911.com, offers help with writing a workplace-violence policy and prevention booklet.

The FBI also publishes a comprehensive prevention packet at www.fbi.gov/publications/violence.pdf.

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