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The Practical Employer author, Jon Hyman.
Spotting the Risk for Violence

Jon Hyman | The Practical Employer

Spotting the Risk for Violence

By Jon Hyman | The Practical Employer

I

t was like most any other Friday afternoon at Henry Pratt Co., and then all of a sudden it wasn’t.

The Aurora, Illinois, company informed one of its employees, Gary Martin, of his termination. Shortly thereafter, he opened fire with a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson, killing five of his co-workers — including the HR manager and an HR intern who was in his first day on the job — and wounding five police officers. Martin himself was the sixth casualty, killed in a shootout with police.

After the news of this tragedy broke, reports surfaced of Martin’s history of violence — six prior arrests by the local police department for domestic violence, and a decades-old felony conviction for aggravated assault.

It begs the question, should this employer have known that Martin was prone to violence, and, if so, should it have taken added measures in connection with his termination?

A criminal history of violent arrests and offenses is not necessarily a predictor of workplace violence.
A criminal history of violent arrests and offenses is not necessarily a predictor of workplace violence. Still, there are certain warning signs for which an employer can look to help determine whether an employee is at risk for potential violence. According to tech firm ESI Group, these warning signs include:

  • A repeated inability to get along with co-workers.
  • Mood swings and anger control issues.
  • Expressions of paranoia or persecution.
  • Frequent complaint of being the “victim.”
  • A history of problems with past jobs and/or personal relationships.
  • An inability to get past minor setbacks or disputes.
  • A fascination with guns, weapons or violent events.
  • A sudden deterioration in work habits.
  • A sudden deterioration in personal grooming.
  • Expressions of stress, depression or suicidal ideation.
  • A major life problem, such as divorce, legal problems or financial problems.

If one or more of these red flags surface, I recommend that you refer this employee to an employee assistance program for assessment and treatment.

If you are compelled to fire an employee who you think poses a risk of violence, it is recommended that you take further steps to guard against a workplace tragedy. ESI Group suggests the following:

  • Consider a professional threat assessment.
  • Consider using a neutral manager or outside security consultant to carry out the termination.
  • If there is a manager or supervisor who has been the object of threats or anger, that person should not be the person to conduct the termination.
  • Have security nearby — not in the same office but close enough to hear signs of a problem and to act.
  • Do not take a break. There are numerous instances of employees asking for a bathroom break or time to compose themselves and using the break to retrieve weapons.
  • Wait until the end of the workday to terminate, if possible. This protects the dignity of the fired employee and minimizes the number of employees on hand should a situation escalate.
  • Minimize any reasons why the employee would have to revisit the workplace. Mail a check; have uncollected belongings sent to the person’s home via a delivery service.
  • Allow the person as much dignity as possible, but be brief and to the point. Do not get into a back and forth.

Moreover, the law does not require that employers faced with a legitimate and potentially dangerous employee wait for the powder keg to explode. While the Americans with Disabilities Act covers employees suffering from a mental illness, it does not cover 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 these 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.
  4. The imminence of the potential harm.

Thus, provided the evidence supports the employer, it can treat a dangerous employee as a “direct threat” and separate the individual from employment.

As with most issues in the workplace, the proverbial ounce of prevention really matters. While there exists no foolproof way to protect your workplace against these kinds of tragedies, a few preventive steps can go a long way to putting you in the best place to deter and respond.


Jon Hyman is a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland. To comment, email editors@workforce.com. Follow Hyman’s blog at Workforce.com/PracticalEmployer.