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What Can a Company Do With a Dangerous Employee?

Anytime there is a public tragedy, like the recent shooting in Tucson, Arizona, where 6 people tragically died, the media becomes awash in "suggestions" to keep safe, proposed new laws, and blame on everyone but the actual perpetrator.

Suddenly, the guy that sits next to you and mutters to himself all the time looks like a real threat.

Chances are, he's not. While it's true that 800 people a year are murdered at work, it's also true that the positions most at risk are police officers, correctional officers and taxi drivers. I haven't done the research, but I'm betting it's not the taxi drivers' fellow taxi drivers that need to be feared.

In other words, this is an extremely rare event. It's more important that you buckle your seatbelt on your way to work then it is that you try to do a psychological evaluation on everyone that seems a bit "off."

That said, for 3 years my name and phone number were attached to termination papers for every layoff in a very large company with a very large number of layoffs. I would be lying if I said my heart never beat a little faster when the front desk called and told me a terminated employee was here to see me. But, most people are as nice as can be, even in the face of something terrible like being laid off.

But what if your coworker starts to scare you? What should you do? Some managers and HR departments are scared to act for fear of violating privacy or the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). I asked Labor and Employment Lawyer Jon Hyman what a company could do when faced with potentially violent employee. He wrote:

The ADA contains a specific exception for employees who pose a "direct threat." The statute defines "direct threat" as "a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by reasonable accommodation." The ADA's regulations require that the determination that an individual poses a direct threat must be "based on an individualized assessment of the individual's present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job." Employers must base this assessment on either "a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge" or "on the best available objective evidence." In making this determination, employers should rely on the following four factors:
  1. The duration of the risk;
  2. The nature and severity of the potential harm;
  3. The likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and
  4. The imminence of the potential harm.
The courts agree with him and said that a company that the Americans with Disabilities Act "protects only "qualified" employees, that is, employees qualified to do the job for which they were hired; and threatening other employees disqualifies one--." In other words, if your HR manager tells you there is nothing they can do, she is mistaken.

All Business reminds employers that employers have a responsibility to protect employees from outside threats as well as inside ones. They recommend:

  • Have a clear, written policy that communicates zero tolerance toward workplace violence in any form.
  • Determine in advance what discipline will be taken against employees who threaten or take violent action in the workplace, and follow through if such threats arise.
  • Create a management team trained to recognize the warning signs of potential violence.
  • Alert your employees about what constitutes workplace violence, including destruction of property and implied threats of violence, and encourage them to report these incidents immediately.
  • Have a reporting system (e.g., an anonymous hotline) to let management know about suspicious or threatening behaviors.
  • Learn to recognize employee behaviors that contribute to workplace violence, such as emotional disturbance and substance abuse.
If you notice a security threat, you should report it. Inquire about policies and plans that are in place. If you truly feel a coworker or a situation is dangerous, you may wish to find a new job or even leave without one. If you manage someone who is a security threat don't let your fear of lawsuits put everyone's life at risk. Work with HR and security experts to resolve the situation and protect everyone involved.

Photo by Anders Sandberg, Flickr cc 2.0

Post updated 1/14/11

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