Virginia News Tragedy: Prevention & Readiness for Workplace Violence

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Reportedly, more than 1,700,000 workers are injured annually as a result of workplace violence.  We were recently reminded that disgruntled employees can be deadly. On August 26th, Vester Lee Flanagan, II murdered two of his former colleagues during a live news segment before taking his own life. This tragedy provides an opportune backdrop for employers to reassess preventative measures in place and disaster readiness in order to minimize the likelihood and impact of violence in the workplace.

According to reports, Flanagan worked for less than one year at WDBJ-TV.  When terminated, Flanagan refused to leave the station and was quoted as stating, “I’m going to make a stink and it’s going to be in the headlines.” While the police were escorting him out of the building, he reportedly threw a small wooden cross at his supervisor and said, “You need this.” Flanagan later filed suit against WDBJ alleging discrimination and harassment; that case was dismissed in 2014.

One of six violent crimes experienced by U.S. residents occur at work. While Flanagan had no criminal history, most human resources organizations recommend that employers perform routine background checks.  In hindsight, some may view Flanagan’s employment history and conduct differently but at the time it was highly unlikely that Flanagan’s employer could have predicted his ultimate crime. However, there are steps employers should consider to promote a safer, more comfortable workplace.

  • Background Checks: Consider whether criminal background checks would be appropriate. Ensure that any background check policy is tailored to the specific industry, position and workforce in order to attempt to avoid liability for disparate impact.
  • Check References: Many employers limit their references to title and dates of employment based on state law limitations or out of a fear of defamation suits. One way to avoid these concerns is to require prospective employers to provide you with a release from your former employee.
  • Anti-Violence Policy: Publicize and enforce a strong workplace violence policy.
  • Culture of Respect: Ensure all employees are treated with dignity and respect.
  • Training: Train managers to recognize warning signs and to diffuse potentially dangerous situations.  Train managers to realize the devastating effect that termination can have on someone and take that into account while speaking with employees.
  • React: Take all threats seriously and conduct a complete investigation.
  • Plan: Enact a comprehensive disaster relief plan and do not be afraid to involve the authorities if there are concerns of violence.