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Could a stressed-out employee who makes veiled threats be a danger to himself or others? It’s the kind of quandary that keeps HR pros awake at night. And because the stakes are potentially high, it’s hard to know what to do.

The most prudent course of action: Suspend the employee until you can sort matters out. There’s little risk of losing a later lawsuit if you clearly feared he might be dangerous.

Recent case: Clinton Whitfield, who is black, believed his supervisors at a U.S. Postal Service facility in Aurora discriminated against him because of his race. He filed numerous discrimination complaints. During one investigation, he wrote that “management’s treatment of me is designed to belittle, frustrate, and push me to the point that I become hostile and physical with them (going postal) …. ”

Shortly after, a former postal employee went on a shooting spree in California, killing six Postal Service workers. In the aftermath, managers in Aurora became concerned about Whitfield’s state of mind. They suspended him for a short period so they could plan a course of action. Ultimately, the Postal Service decided not to fire Whitfield, and reinstated him.

He sued anyway, alleging that he had been retaliated against for his original complaint.

The court rejected his claim, reasoning that management had been reasonably concerned about his apparent frustration and the possibility of violence. (Whitfield v. Potter, No. 07-CV-00650, DC CO, 2008)

Final note:
Remember, you have a duty to provide your employees with a safe working environment. That means balancing the potential for a lawsuit from a threatening employee against the possibility of workplace violence. Ignoring the situation isn’t an option and could amount to negligent supervision.

If you have any doubt about how to handle a similar problem, consult your attorney and law enforcement. They should be able to offer guidance.

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