On August 24, 2017, a former employee entered a popular downtown Charleston, South Carolina restaurant, killed the executive chef, and held a person hostage for several hours, before being shot and injured by the police, ending the standoff. The victim was 37 years old and left behind a wife and two young children. The former employee who is accused of murder had an extensive criminal background, including violent crime, theft, and drug charges, as well as a history of mental illness, according to media reports.
This tragic event points out the need for employers to reexamine their own practices and policies with regard to hiring and potential workplace violence.
Employers should consider conducting background checks on job candidates prior to making an offer. A background check will reveal a job candidate’s prior criminal history. A South Carolina employer also can obtain a criminal history on a job candidate through the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (“SLED”), which will reveal arrests and convictions in South Carolina. Importantly, however, if an employer chooses to conduct a background check or obtain a SLED report, the employer needs to adopt a policy of doing so for all job candidates and not on a case-by-case basis. Failure to do so may result in a potential discrimination claim. The background check can also show a candidate’s credit history. In that regard, there are specific requirements under the Fair Credit Reporting Act that an employer must be aware of and follow if planning to obtain a background check through a third party on any prospective employee.
If an employee reports unusual behavior by a coworker that raises a red flag, the employer should document the report and, if necessary, meet with the coworker to address the issue. Employers may also monitor concerning behavior by employees toward coworkers outside of the workplace. For example, if an employee makes a threat toward another employee on social media, and the employee reports it to the employer or the employer is made aware of the social media posting through other means, the employer should document the incident and address it immediately.
Finally, employers should consider adopting a thorough anti-violence policy. This policy may be included in the employee handbook and should state conduct prohibited by the policy, the procedure for reporting violations and how the employer will address violations of the policy. Prohibited conduct may include, for example, causing physical injury to another, making threatening remarks, intentionally damaging the employer’s property or another employee’s property, possessing a weapon while on company property, “horseplaying,” stalking, harassing, or any conduct threatening or intimidating another employee. The policy can cover conduct both at work as well as outside the workplace. Though an employer may choose the specific level of disciplinary action, a violation of the policy can lead to immediate termination, and the employer should make sure this is included in the policy.
It is impossible to know whether any of these practices may have prevented the senseless act in downtown Charleston last month. However, by taking these and other steps, employers may prevent a violent act in the workplace.