In light of the recent news of tragic shootings and workplace violence around the country, employers are left wondering how they can protect their operations and employees from such events. Rightfully so – employers also have a duty to protect their employees, clients and customers from harm and can be held liable for failing to do so.

Last month, the State of New York enacted legislation making it a felony to assault certain public sector employees. While private employers don’t have such sweeping authority, there are several steps they can take to ensure safety in the workplace.

Workplace Violence Policy

Establishing a written policy on workplace safety can be the first step in a violence prevention program. Policies must mandate a zero tolerance message and should require employees to report threats and comments that suggest suspicious or concerning behavior.

A clear reporting component is critical, as employees are the eyes and ears of the organization. Employers should have or implement an “Open Door” policy that encourages employees to report concerns to their supervisors or human resources. This allows employers to identify, investigate and assess employee concerns as soon as possible.

Of course, all threats must be taken seriously until fully investigated and a determination has been made. Timely and thorough responses to employee concerns under such policies will underscore the legitimacy of the reporting options.

Background Checks

The use of background checks may assist employers in identifying job applicants with violent histories that indicate risk for dangerous behavior. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance regarding an employer’s use of criminal background checks in hiring. That guidance discourages employers from following a policy of outright refusing to hire ex-offenders.

While the EEOC provides this caution, state and federal laws may prevent individuals convicted of certain crimes from being employed in specific fields (i.e. individuals working in a skilled nursing care facility may not be convicted of aggravated assault). In industries that have no such prohibitions, employers can still use background checks to evaluate a candidate for trustworthiness and indications of risk to others, and they may exclude a candidate, so long as an individualized assessment of that person’s background in line with his or her contemplated job responsibilities is performed.

Employee Assistance Programs

Employers should expect employees at times may encounter difficult periods in their lives that could serve as triggers for violent and disruptive behavior. For this reason, employers are encouraged to consider formal Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). An EAP is a confidential medical and counseling resource provided to employees to address personal issues related to family, alcohol or drug use, finances, or other stressors. These confidential programs often have 24/7 hotline numbers and can refer employees to local resources for additional care.

Avoid disability discrimination claims

While these various tools can help to avoid violence in the workplace, there is inherent legal risk in each. For example, the EEOC and the National Labor Relations Board both have recently taken issue with employer policies they view as going too far. Still, good planning and management in implementing such policies and programs, with the help of experts, should minimize risk and maximize safety.

A final thought on avoiding workplace violence – often, regular communication with management and your workforce alone can help to identify warning signs and thwart the development of extreme circumstances. Make regular engagement with your team a priority to stay ahead of potential issues.