You don’t need me to tell you about last week’s shooting at Marjorie Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Whatever details are known are all over the news. Innocent people died. In particular, innocent teens died. I don’t work in education. I don’t work with teens or children. This recent shooting and others that have come before it however, whether at a school or elsewhere affects us all. All of the places where previously unthinkable acts occurred are workplaces. That is why employers in particular should be concerned about this latest school shooting, along with all previous school shootings and frankly any shootings at clubs, gyms or pretty much anywhere. What can you do though? I’d be lying if I said I had the secret sauce. At the same time there are some steps worth considering, so read on…
Here are at least some things we know about the shooting. Last Wednesday, February 14, at 2:20 p.m. Nikolas Cruz opened fire with a semi-automatic assault rifle, and in approximately 6 minutes murdered 17 people, fourteen of whom were students, and three of whom were teachers. Approximately 14 others suffered injuries. Every single person in that school, including students, teachers, administrators and all other staff members were in danger. Nikolas Cruz has a history of mental illness and violence. He owned several assault weapons, and he had talked about using them. He had also talked about shooting up a school. Students complained about him. The police and the county social services agency knew him. I admit that I am leaving out a lot of details, but for our purposes we don’t need them. You have many options for finding them, and the point is not to assign blame. I will however attempt to provide a few takeaways for employers, so that perhaps in some infinitesimal way we can hope that these 17 victims will not have died in vain. Here are some ideas:
- Violence, including gun violence can happen in your workplace. Take steps, and be prepared: In most cases those employers impacted by workplace shootings or other violence never believed it could or would happen there–and because they were not prepared, they could not protect themselves, their employees, and in some cases, the public.
- Get, and provide all your employees, training on understanding, addressing and preventing workplace violence: Make sure the training includes recognizing risk factors and warning signs of workplace violence, and what to do if an active shooter is on the premises. Repeat and update the training periodically. Employees may need to be told and shown more than once what to do if they are faced with an active shooter–or they might simply freeze should the time come.
- Review and update your security measures: Aim to close any loopholes that allow someone to get past security or locked doors.
- View termination as the beginning — not the end– of the solution, especially if you know or have reason to know that the employee owns or has some fixation on weapons. In today’s climate, you are kidding yourself, and probably playing with fire, if you assume that simply terminating the problem employee takes care of the problem. We have seen too many instances of disgruntled former workers coming back with weapons. Consider referrals for counseling (mental health, job placement, or whatever else might be appropriate under the circumstances). Consider carrying out the termination at the end of the day when other workers have left, to minimize the chances of embarrassment that can lead to disgruntlement.
- Follow up after a termination: This point kind of builds on the previous one. After a termination, particularly where the employee has demonstrated violent tendencies and/or interest in firearms, take reasonable steps to limit easy access to the premises. Alert security and/or your other employees not to let the former employee back onto the premises–and to immediately call police if they see the former employee on premises. Contact the authorities to let them know if you feel the now-former employee could be a problem. Local authorities may keep an eye on your workplace and may also offer some helpful ideas for protecting against any threats. They would rather hear from you before a problem arises — particularly if they can help you avoid one in the future.
- Review and update your policies and procedures: (C’mon you had to know I’d include this one.) Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace for their employees. In the event of a lawsuit, courts will first look at your policies and procedures, as well as what you actually did either to prevent or respond appropriately to violent situations.
- Take complaints seriously, investigate them and document your responses: If you are sued (I’m not looking for you to be, but we live in a litigious society) courts look at whether you knew or should have known of a threat of violence. If there were prior complaints or concerns that you brushed off, that will not bode well for you. If you did investigate and you did respond in a reasonable manner but you have nothing documented, you will have no proof, which is often about as good as you never having taken appropriate steps. Finally…
- Talk — and listen– to your employees: I have said this before in other contexts, but it bears repeating here. Your employees are often your best source of information as to who is a potential threat or problem and how much of a threat they may represent. Quite a few of the students at MSDHS were not surprised to hear who the shooter at their school was. A number of them complained to administration about him. (My intent is not to point fingers here, as I do not know what was done in response to those complaints). Similarly, many times co-workers are not surprised when certain employees commit the types of acts most of us find unthinkable. Getting out from behind your desks, engaging with your employees, encouraging them to voice their concerns can often go a long way toward catching a problem early — and fending off a tragedy.
I am in no way suggesting that I have all the answers. In all likelihood the issue of gun violence, whether in the workplace or elsewhere is a puzzle that is missing many pieces. These are just some ideas that I hope will be helpful to at least a few of you and be one piece of that puzzle.
Let me also say that my heart goes out to all the victims, their loved ones and to all those who unfortunately were in that building during the shooting. Nothing I say or do can undo what happened or take away their pain. I can only say I am sorry and my thoughts are with all of them.
See you next week.
Contents of this post are for educational/informational purposes only, are not legal advice, and do not create an attorney-client relationship. Consult with competent employment counsel in the state(s) in which you employ people with your specific questions.
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