Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Violence in the Workplace

The article in today’s Oregonian said Omar Thornton was caught on video, stealing beer. When he was confronted, he shot and killed eight people, including his union representative, and then turned the gun on himself.

While the family and friends of the victims grieve, the rest of us are left to wonder whether there was anything the company could have done to prevent this tragedy.

As with every other aspect of employee relations, the answer is yes – and no.

Employers have an obligation to provide a safe workplace, which includes implementing policies to prevent foreseeable dangers, such as faulty equipment, hazardous substances, and violence. That task is made harder by the recent Supreme Court ruling that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals (like Omar Thornton) to carry a handgun, and therefore states are limited in their ability to restrict those rights. (That comment is not a reflection of my personal feelings about gun ownership, the Constitution, or the Supreme Court--it simply highlights the increasing squeeze on employers subject to conflicting legal obligations).

But consider this: even if the state of Connecticut banned weapons in the workplace, and even if the Hartfort Distributors had imposed a more stringent policy than permitted by state law, it is highly unlikely an employee who was capable of murder would have complied with the policy.

Which is why I don’t advocate a rush to impose draconian policies in the wake of the Connecticut shooting.

Do you remember the Shoe Bomber? After a would-be terrorist hopped on a plane with explosives in his shoes, the FAA began requiring all travelers to remove their shoes for scanning. Are we safer now? I’m not sure. There will (presumably) be no future shoe bombers, but what’s to stop someone from hiding explosives in the hem of his pants, or some other article of clothing?

Similarly, businesses could begin install a metal detector at one entrance – or even a full body scanner – and require all employees to use that entrance at the start of their shift. But even if Hartford Distributors had such a policy, Mr. Thornton could have kept his gun in his car, and retrieved it to wreak havoc on co-workers and members of the public outside the building.

Don’t get me wrong: I am unabashedly in favor of prohibiting weapons in the workplace. (Interesting aside: a client once told me their employees at remote Alaska worksites need to carry a gun to prepare for the very real danger of encountering a bear—that seems like a pretty reasonable exception to the general proposition that employees don’t need to pack an arsenal at work).

My point is that while employers must take every reasonable precaution to prevent workplace violence, there is no fail-safe method of eliminating every conceivable risk. So, we are left with the unsatisfactory option of taking admittedly imperfect steps.

1. Evaluate your EAP program : Do employees suffering from addiction or emotional problems have resources? Do they know about those resources?

2. Provide training to your supervisory employees in recognizing the danger signs of an unstable or at-risk employee.

3. Review and update (and enforce) your weapons at work policy.

My heart goes out to the family and friends of the victims of Omar Thornton, and to the family and friends of Mr. Thornton himself. We can send them our compassion and our prayers, but in evaluating our own policies, we should focus on policies that really have the potential to keep us safe.

No comments:

Post a Comment