United States: Learning From Orlando: Addressing Potentially Violent Employees

In the nine days since Omar Mateen opened fire in the Pulse nightclub, killing 49 individuals and injuring several others, a report surfaced that Mateen's violent nature and potential to do harm to others was readily apparent to at least one of his co-workers. According to the Los Angeles Times, Daniel Gilroy, who worked with Mateen for about a year as a security guard at PGA Village South in Port St. Lucie, FL, complained multiple times to their employer that Mateen was dangerous, that "he didn't like blacks, women, lesbians and Jews." Gilroy claims his employer's failure to respond to the complaints left him with no choice but to resign. "I quit because everything he said was toxic," Gilroy to USA Today, "and the company wouldn't do anything. This guy was unhinged and unstable. He talked of killing people." 

Last week, in the immediate aftermath of the Orlando shooting incident, Marilyn Moran, partner in the Orlando office of Ford Harrison, offered employers advice on how to help employees in crisis through empathy and counseling, while remaining compliant with state and federal employment laws. The situation also highlights another issue that confronts employers on a daily basis: the potentially violent employee.

Reports of a potentially violent co-worker bring many difficult questions to bear. What are the nature of the alleged comments? Who is the source of the complaint and does that person have ulterior motives? Most important, should we get law enforcement involved or can we handle this ourselves? Because most employers will encounter such a situation at some point, it is best to formulate a plan of action and train your front level managers/supervisors on how to respond.

First and foremost, human resources professionals and managers must remain engaged with their workforce. Allowing yourself to detach from your employees for great lengths of time, whether it's to catch up on paperwork or tend to other issues, may permit small problems to fester into big ones. This is not to say you can control or prevent a violent employee simply by seeing him/her on a regular basis. What you can do, however, is assist your managers in recognizing and addressing any potential issues before they become unmanageable or more threatening.

Remaining engaged also will help you ferret out the real problems from the noncredible complaints. As with any complaint investigation, if you have no personal experience with the alleged violent employee or the complaining employee, you will be at a severe disadvantage in evaluating character and credibility. When the human resources department cannot gain face-to-face exposure to employees as easily, such as in larger workforces or employers with multiple locations, it is critically important to have managers who are actively engaged with the employees they supervise. This does not mean managers should attempt to be their employees' best friend. They should, however, remain present in the workplace, approachable, and maintain the highest levels of credibility with their employees at all times. This will serve to foster open communication about any issues arising about or between employees.

Employers also should maintain clear and well-disseminated policies prohibiting violence or threatening conduct toward coworkers and third parties. This includes verbal threats of potential harm. Employees should know to whom they should report this kind of conduct, and employers should investigate all complaints.

Employers may be hesitant to take action against an employee due to concerns that the employee may claim disability discrimination. While mental disabilities are protected, direct threats to co-workers and others are not. Employers should be sure not to take action against an employee simply because he/she has a mental disability that has shown the potential to result in violent or threatening behavior in others, such as bipolar disorder. Actions should be based on the employee's own actions exhibiting a potential threat and not the employer's assumptions about what might occur.

If a complaint or other situation appears to be particularly serious, do not hesitate to involve law enforcement officials. Do not underestimate complaints of violence or threatened violence to avoid a "scene." Law enforcement are specially trained to handle potentially threatening situations and/or individuals. They can help assess the seriousness of a reported threat and determine the appropriate response. At the very least, law enforcement will create a report documenting the situation and the employers response. Employers owe it to their employees and their communities to take every effort to address these issues head on.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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