When an Employee Threatens Violence, What's an Employer to Do?

One crisp, sunny day in February, a client contacted me in a panic. A new employee—whose romantic overtures had been flatly rejected by a coworker—bragged that he had a gun. The client needed to know what to do.

Although employers should proactively strive to create and maintain a safe work environment, no amount of preparation is guaranteed to prevent conflicts. In the unfortunate event that a credible threat of violence arises, established protocols and awareness can help address the issues promptly in an effort to protect everyone's safety.

Implement an Anti-Violence Policy

Creating awareness of procedures to follow in the event of actual violence or the threat of violence is critical. An employer's personnel manual should include a policy that, at a minimum, prohibits violence and threats in the workplace (including those made in jest) and requires employees to report all related incidents. Of course, in a crisis situation, employees likely will not have time to consult the manual. However, implementing a policy and reviewing it with employees at least annually can help keep protocols top of mind and enable employees to stay calm in the face of a threat or actual violence.

Assess the Threat

In the event an employee threatens violence, an employer should first assess the seriousness of the threat in order to determine an appropriate course of action. What were the circumstances? Does the employee have a history of erratic behavior? What was the tone of the threat? How specific was it? For example, there may be a significant difference between an employee's offhand remark ("I could just kill my supervisor for making me work this weekend instead of going to the concert. Now I'll need to sell my tickets on StubHub.") and a specific threat e-mailed to a coworker ("Jane turned me down for the last time. I have my brother-in-law's gun, and I'll be waiting for her when the plant opens on Monday.").

An employer should weigh all facts in order to assess the seriousness of the threat. If time permits, consider involving a forensic psychologist or outside investigator.

Implement Security Measures

If a credible threat is identified, an employer should take steps to promptly implement security measures designed to protect its workforce. The nature and extent of these measures will vary depending on the circumstances, including preexisting security in the workplace, the nature and seriousness of the threat, and the employee's behavioral history.

An employer's actions may include changing locks and access codes, securing doors that ordinarily are left open, alerting key employees to the threat, reviewing safety protocols with all employees and hiring on-site security personnel. When the threat involves imminent harm, an employer should immediately contact law enforcement authorities, lock down facilities and consult with legal counsel.

Focus on Maintaining Peace in the Workplace

Employers can protect the safety of their employees and reduce the likelihood of workplace violence by following a few simple rules:

  • Proactively create and maintain a positive work environment;
  • Treat terminated employees with courtesy and respect (including having onsite outplacement support to help diffuse emotions and refocus affected employees on productive steps to move forward); and
  • Provide avenues for employees to complain within the company so that they do not feel like threatening or committing violence is the only way to be heard.

Sheryl Jaffee Halpern, Chair of the firm's Labor & Employment group, helps employers make important decisions about their employees in a way that is designed to minimize risk. She counsels employers on a wide range of employment matters, providing clear, direct guidance designed to promote legal compliance, while remaining cognizant of the practical workplace realities her clients face.

This article contains material of general interest and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. Under professional rules, this content may be regarded as attorney advertising.