Seyfarth Synopsis: Workplace violence is no laughing matter. Although California law arms employers with strict laws to prevent workplace violence, no one wants to find themselves petitioning a court for emergency injunctive relief. Instead, employers should foster healthy workplaces and monitor early warning signs in order to address threats of violence before it is too late.
“If I had a gun with two bullets and I was in a room with Hitler, Bin Laden, and Toby, I would shoot Toby twice.”
Popular culture is rife with amusing expressions of office tension that can provide healthy relief to real world frustration. But as comical as some might find the antics of The Office’s Michael Scott, no one wants to witness these sort of threats in person. Although California law arms employers with strict laws to prevent workplace violence, to best protect the workplace, employers should proactively manage the possibility of violence rather than waiting for a threat to appear.
California Civil Procedure Code section 527. 8 defines workplace violence as assault, battery, or stalking, and permits employers to obtain a restraining order against “any individual” who makes a credible threat of violence that can reasonably be construed to be carried out at the workplace. It also empowers employers to obtain a court order requiring those who threaten violence to temporarily turn their weapons over to the police or sell or store their weapons with a licensed gun dealer. And if a restrained person violates the court’s temporary order, the District Attorney may press criminal charges.
But let’s face it: no one wants to get to this point. Luckily, there are several things employers can do to manage workplace violence before everyday frustrations snowball into a credible threat of violence.
“At least we care enough about our employees that we are willing to fight for them.”
First, implement a companywide workplace violence policy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 70 percent of U.S. workplaces lack a formal policy that addresses workplace violence. Without guidance from employers on how to address troublesome coworkers, employees may unwittingly escalate the threat of violence by responding on their own. The company should maintain an environment that minimizes isolation and resentment and that fosters open communication.
Second, be on the lookout for early warning signs and encourage employees to report threats or symptoms of violence. These signs may include a recent life- or mind-threatening illness, expressions of paranoia or persecution, and the deterioration of workplace friendships. Most of all, listen to your employees. If they bring a threat posted on social media to your attention, ask Human Resources to investigate. And be sure to address and document problematic behavior as it occurs.
Third, if a credible threat is made, immediately alert security or the police, collect all relevant evidence, and seek legal advice to assist with an appropriate response, which may include petitioning the court for a temporary restraining order. At the same time, ask Human Resources to investigate (if HR has not already done so) and consider retaining an outside firm to conduct an independent threat assessment. Typically, this process involves an independent investigation into the suspect as well as a workplace inspection to identify points of vulnerability, such as unmonitored entrances into the workplace. An independent threat assessment may reveal that the suspect does not pose a credible threat. On the other hand, the assessment may reveal that serving the suspect with court papers may increase the risk of violence. Conducting a thorough threat assessment should allow the employer to put in security measures by the time any temporary restraining order is served.
Fourth, remember that workplace violence restraining orders can also protect more than the workplace and extend to threatened employees’ homes, family members, cars, and even their children’s school.
Workplace Solutions: Protective orders provide an invaluable defense to credible threats of workplace violence; but employers should proactively manage the specter of workplace violence before it occurs rather than waiting for a legitimate threat to emerge. Many incidents of workplace violence are preventable (or at least controllable) through the implementation of company policies and by remaining aware of possible warning signs. If you have any questions about workplace violence, we recommend that you speak to your favorite Seyfarth attorney, as we are well experienced in this area. We hope you never need a restraining order. But if you do, we’ll guide you through what can be a nerve-wracking experience.
Edited By: Coby Turner