Diversity & Inclusion

Violent culture, violent workplaces

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has reported an increase in work-related gun violence for each of the past 10 years. There were 417 workplace homicides in America in 2015; guns were used in 354 of them. In 2017, the epidemic continues. Mutual aggression

The workplace reflects the nation: More than 100 people were shot in Chicago over the long July 4 weekend. On June 28, a 28-year-old man shot an 18-year-old girl in the head in an act of road rage after they jockeyed for position merging onto a Pennsylvania highway. James Hodgkinson—a left-wing activist from Illinois—reportedly waited for days outside an Alexandria, Virginia, baseball diamond for Republicans to show up to practice for the annual House of Representatives baseball game. When the congressmen arrived on June 14, he fired 50 rounds at them before being killed by Capitol Police officers.

June was a bad month for workplace violence as well. On June 14, at a UPS facility two miles from my San Francisco office, UPS driver Jimmy Lam killed three fellow drivers at a morning meeting preceding the day’s deliveries and wounded two others before turning the gun on himself. Most of the drivers at the facility have yet to return to their jobs.

Roughly a week earlier, John Newman Jr., a former employee at Fiamma, an Italian awning factory based in Orlando, Florida, fatally shot five coworkers before killing himself. Newman had been fired two months earlier, but because he didn’t react negatively at the time, the company didn’t view him as a threat despite a history of workplace violence. In 2014, police were called to the company when an employee accused Newman of chasing him and punching him in the back of the head. No charges were filed over that incident.

On June 7, as Pennsylvania grocery store employee Randy Stair was about to start his night shift, he posted videos and messages announcing his intent to commit violence. At about 1:00 a.m., he locked and blocked the supermarket doors and shot 59 rounds, killing three coworkers before shooting himself. And on June 20, Julio Narvaez took a semiautomatic weapon to San Diego medical company Pharmtech, shot a coworker, and was headed to the HR department when coworkers and security guards wrestled the gun away from him and held him for police.

On June 30, 45-year-old Dr. Henry Bello returned to Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, which had terminated him last winter in the midst of a sexual harassment investigation. Hiding a gun under his lab coat, he sought out and killed a fellow doctor and shot six other members of the hospital staff before fatally shooting himself as the police arrived.

In a culture in which violence is spreading, civility is waning, and guns are plentiful, every employer must have a plan to address workplace violence. There’s no geographic area, no size or sector of business, that is immune from this threat. You can do much to minimize the risk of workplace violence, but you cannot completely eliminate it. At the hiring phase, you should look for a propensity toward anger and blaming others, and attempt to weed out applicants who display violent tendencies.

But because of recent “ban-the-box” legislation, which prevents employers from asking about most arrest and conviction records, there’s no easy way to avoid hiring problematic employees. So you need to have a comprehensive plan in place, ranging from prophylactic dispute-resolution mechanisms to an effective way to address workplace violence if it occurs. One good example of such a plan, referenced in recent publications from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has been put out by the University of California at Davis. Found at http://hr.ucdavis.edu/elr/er/wv_info/vp_brochure.html, it’s not a one-size-fits-all plan, but it’s a great place to start devising your own strategy.

We cannot do much about the disturbingly increasing climate of violence and incivility in our country. But we have a legal and moral obligation to prevent it in our workplaces—a task that seems to have gotten much harder this year. We often ignore the need to address violence in the workplace because it isn’t as heavily regulated as harassment, discrimination, or wage and hour issues, nor does it arise as often. But the ramifications are so great that an effective workplace violence plan should rise to the top of your to-do list.

Mark I. Schickman is a partner with Freeland Cooper & Foreman LLP in San Francisco and editor of California Employment Law Letter. He may be contacted at schickman@freelandlaw.com.