Employers need to understand and better prepare for violence in the workplace when they plan on imposing discipline on employees. Of course, this is especially true when management terminates employees or asks an employee to resign. Such was the case this morning when management at a Hartford beer distributorship in Manchester, CT asked an employee, Omar Thornton, to resign. Clearly upset about the discipline imposed, Mr. Thornton chose to take matters into his own hands and immediately took out a gun and started shooting in a group of 50-70 workers during a shift change in the early morning hours. Apparently, eight employees including the gunman are dead from this incident.
This type of response to employers imposing discipline is unfortunately not a new occurrence. In April 2007 an employee in Houston, Texas was merely given a poor job performance by his manager at NASA. His response was similar to the response of Mr. Thornton today. Somehow he managed to sneak a gun into the highly secure NASA facility and shot and killed both his supervisor and himself.
Not necessarily the proper response when your employer disciplines you. Yet it appears to be happening more and more these days. Take for instance the case of workplace violence that occurred in Orlando, Florida on November 6, 2009 when Jason Rodriguez who had been fired from his engineering firm, Reynolds Smith & Hills more than two years earlier returned to his formed workplace and walked into his former office and began shooting, killing one and wounding five other employees. He obviously was quite upset about his termination and told a reporter who asked him why he had done this that it was “because they left me to rot”. Apparently, he had never forgotten the anger nor moved on from the resentment caused by his termination. In addition, his marriage had ended, he could not pay the child support for his son, his home was taken in foreclosure and he had to declare bankruptcy. Faced with all of these stresses, Mr. Rodriguez was driven over the edge and on November 6, 2009 walked into his former office and began shooting.
More recently, there is the case of the University of Alabama neurobiologist and professor who was faced with a group of fellow-professors who decided to deny her tenure at the University. This decision meant that her employment at the University would have come to an end in May 2010. This employment decision was so devastating to Ms. Bishop that on February 12, 2010 she took out a gun at a faculty meeting with her colleagues and ended up shooting six of her colleagues and killing three of them. She is now facing the death penalty.
How can employers be better prepared? Each instance of workplace violence has to be used as a lesson for employers. A lesson to be better aware of the warning signs of workplace violence. Employers also need to be better prepared by ensuring that they have well drafted workplace violence prevention policies as well as providing workplace violence prevention training to all of their managers. Such training will help familiarize the managers with the warning signs of workplace violence, inform managers of some possible resources within the workplace to assist employees that display warning signs of workplace violence and advise managers on methods to provide discipline that can help to avoid instances of workplace violence.
In addition to employers learning to be better prepared for the possibility of workplace violence when disciplining employees, employers also need to be aware that harassment that is not dealt with can escalate and result in workplace violence. Such appears to be the case in this morning’s shooting massacre. Apparently, the gunman Omar Thornton, a 34 year-old African American had been upset by and complained to management about being racially harassed in the workplace. Allegedly he had complained about a picture of a hangman’s noose and a racial epithet that had been placed on a wall in the bathroom at the beer distributorship. Allegedly management did nothing to respond to his harassment complaints and may have in fact retaliated by asking him to resign. Employers need to understand that when an employee complains about workplace harassment, the employer has a legal responsibility to respond to the complaint by undertaking an investigation and then taking prompt corrective action to stop the harassment. Failure on management’s part to respond promptly can lead to liability. Moreover, disciplining an employee after the employee has filed a harassment complaint can lead to claims of retaliation. Management should ensure that they respond promptly to all claims of workplace harassment and take prompt corrective action which can include discipline of the harasser, up to and including termination. Management should also provide training to all managers so that they understand what to do when they receive a harassment complaint, observe harassment in the workplace and/or have an employee that has filed a harassment complaint so they can better understand how to best avoid retaliation against the employee.
Hopefully, today’s deadly and unfortunate incident of workplace violence will serve as a lesson to employers to ensure that they are better prepared to protect their workplace from incidents of workplace violence and to ensure that their employees are provided with a workplace free of harassment of any kind.
Submitted by: Melissa Fleischer, Esq.
HR Learning Center LLC
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