Employee Lawsuits: Violence in the Workplace

Violent responses to discharge or layoff are more frequent.

Sam Goodwin's new job as a computer programmer was going well. He had been with the company for more than three years and had received good evaluations. He had been written up on one occasion for insubordination; otherwise, his performance had been good. Sam didn't socialize with the other employees in his department. Mostly, he just kept to himself. He even ate lunch alone, content to read sports magazines or maybe an occasional gun catalogue.

Lately, however, Sam seemed to be arguing with his supervisor Frank Chaplin over every little thing. He seemed to be much angrier than usual. He didn't understand it himself. On one particular occasion, Sam got so upset that he told Frank, "Get out of my face or I'll kill you." Frank gave Sam a one-day suspension, which was approved by Human Resources. Frank really didn't think Sam would attack him. In fact, he told Susan Childs, the HR director, that he believed Sam was merely "venting."

Upon his return to work, Sam was sullen toward Frank, often glaring at him when he passed him in the hallway. Sam also often followed Frank to his car after work. Still, because Sam also parked his car in the same lot, Frank was reluctant to confront him. Besides, since he returned from his suspension, Sam did everything Frank asked of him in the department.

One morning, not long after Sam's return to work, Frank overheard him tell a co-worker that he had a new gun, a .44 magnum. Frank asked

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security to keep an eye on Sam. After work that day, security personnel followed Sam to his car and watched as he pulled a brown paper bag out of the car. He held the bag as Frank passed, glaring at him. The security personnel stopped Sam as he was about to get in his car and seized the bag. Inside the bag, they found Sam's gun.

Sam was taken to Susan Childs' office where security personnel filled her in on the details of what happened. Sam was clearly in a lot of trouble - the company has a very strict policy against bringing firearms onto company property. Sam would have been fired, but he produced a permit to carry the gun and told the HR Director that he was receiving psychological counseling for his emotional outbursts.

"That may be, Sam, but having that gun on company property is a termination offense," said Susan. "What the hell were you going to do with it?"

"Now, wait a minute, Susan. The only thing I was doing was waiting for Stan Politski. I told him about my gun and he said he wanted to see it. I took it out of my car and I was waiting for Stan in the parking lot when these security guys jumped me."

Susan said, "Look, Sam, the bottom line here is that Frank Chaplin says you've been glaring at him, you've been following him to his car, and then today you're caught standing near his car with a .44 magnum in a brown paper bag. It doesn't look good, Sam."

"Oh, for Pete's sake, Susan," exclaimed Sam, "that gun wasn't even loaded. Just ask your security people." Susan didn't answer but glanced over at Joe Black, the chief of security, who nodded his head, confirming what Sam was saying.

Sam continued, "Susan, please, I've got to keep this job. I have a legal permit to carry that gun in my car. I know it looks bad, but all I was doing was waiting for Stan - you can ask him."

Susan said, "I'm going to suspend you pending an investigation for possible discharge. I'll want a written report from your psychologist and I also want to talk to him. We'll hold your gun here until we decide what to do. By all rights, I should probably turn you over to the police, but since the gun wasn't loaded, I guess I'll let that go for now."

Susan had her hands full during the next few days. She received the report from Sam's psychologist, which indicated that Sam was suffering from a bipolar condition, sometimes called a "manic-depressive" condition. The psychologist was very positive about Sam's chances for complete recovery and he was extremely distressed to hear that Sam might be discharged. He did not condone Sam's possession of a gun, but stated that, in his estimation, Sam's job was the "most positive, constructive part of his life right now." The psychologist minimized the risks toward other employees, saying, "Individuals with a bipolar condition are hardly ever physically aggressive. They may be verbally combative but, in Sam's case, the medicine I prescribed for him should control any of those outbursts."

Susan also talked to Stan Politski, the employee Sam was allegedly waiting for in the parking lot. Stan confirmed that he had asked to see Sam's gun and had arranged to meet him after work. "I didn't know he was going to pull it out in the parking lot, though," said Stan. "I thought we were going to go to the gun club to fire off a few rounds."

Susan decided to give Sam another chance. There was still the problem of Frank, however. She knew he would not be comfortable with her decision. Luckily, there was an opening in the electronic parts cage and Sam had the technical "know-how" to do that job. She decided to allow Sam to come back on the condition he take the transfer to the parts distribution job.

Upon his return to work, Sam was polite to Frank when he saw him, but he really didn't associate with any other employee except Stan Politski. One day, Sam and Stan were standing in the hallway adjacent to the company lunch room when Frank Chaplin went by. Frank nodded and kept on walking. Sam didn't say anything to Frank but smiled and turned to Stan Politski. "Did you read about the guy in North Carolina who blew away his supervisor with a sawed-off shotgun?" asked Sam. "Knock it off," said Stan, "Frank might hear you." Sam just continued to smile and told Stan he had to get back to work.

Several days later, Sam was again standing outside the lunchroom when Frank came to eat lunch. Frank saw Sam come toward him as he approached the lunchroom, but he thought Sam was just going back to the parts cage. Frank saw the flash of steel as Sam closed the distance between them very quickly. He didn't have time to react as Sam plunged a seven-inch knife into his abdomen and then again into his chest.

The police found Sam in the parts cage, blood on his hands and running down the front of his shirt. He was crying, but otherwise seemed to be routinely attending to some paperwork that needed to go out with a parts shipment. He calmly followed the orders of the police as they handcuffed him and took him out of the plant. No one heard Sam say anything to the police except, "They shouldn't have taken my gun."

Violence in the Workplace

There is an increasing tendency of employees to react with violence after discharge or layoff from employment. Homicide is now the leading cause of death for women in the workplace and it is the third largest threat to workers overall. The violence that has so permeated our society in recent years does not end at the factory door. Workplaces are no longer islands of safety in an otherwise troubled society.

Recent studies would seem to indicate that these violent events are not simply isolated incidents but part of a larger trend of increased violence in the workplace. In a report issued by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), statistics showed that homicides accounted for more than 12 percent of all work-related fatalities during the years 1980 to 1989. About 41 percent of all women killed in the workplace during this same time period were victims of homicide. And although these statistics do not distinguish between convenience store clerks killed in the line of duty and supervisors who are murdered by vengeance-seeking ex-employees, this latter phenomenon is undoubtedly increasing.

A Northwestern National Life Insurance Company study found that 25 percent of all workers had been either attacked, harassed, or threatened during the yearlong period ending in July 1993. The report estimates that nearly 2.2 million workers were victims of physical attacks over the one-year period, while 6.3 million were threatened with harm. Moreover, 43 percent of the threats were never reported, yet nearly one in six attacks involved a lethal weapon.

Employers cannot be expected to accurately predict which of their employees may have the potential for workplace violence. Many times the acts of murder and vengeance have appeared to be totally out of context with the normal behavior of the employee. Experts say that there is a "profile" for the type of individual who may turn into a so-called "avenger" after a discharge from employment. Still, these "avengers" may have been model employees before they "snapped." Are there procedures that might have identified these employees' tendency toward violence? Is the employer responsible for hiring or retaining these violent employees?

In this section, we will explore a methodology for differentiating between simple antisocial or unfriendly behavior and truly violent or threatening conduct. We will review the steps that employers can take to protect their supervisors against potential attacks by "avenging" employees. Finally, we will take a practical look at the relative risks that exist in retaining hostile or threatening employees as compared with the risk of potential liability for the discharge of such employees. It may be that, in situations that mandate decisive action, discharge may be preferable to continued attempts at rehabilitating the hostile or aggressive employee.

Excerpted from Slam the Door on Employee Lawsuits: Keep Your Business Out of Court. Copyright 1998 by Paul M. Lusky. Published by arrangement with Career Press.
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