In Jefferson City, Missouri, three people were killed by a plant worker at a manufacturing plant in 2003. In March 1998, four state lottery executives were killed by a Connecticut lottery accountant. In 1986, a part-time letter carrier facing dismissal walked into the post office where he worked and shot 14 people to death before killing himself. What are these event examples of?

Although all of the above events represent examples of terrible crimes, these occurrences also illustrate a recent increase in workplace violence – a specific criminal category now recognized by most law enforcement agencies. Workplace violence is defined by the FBI as any action that may threaten the safety of an employee, impact an employee’s physical or psychological well being, or cause damage to company property. Homicide is the most extreme form of workplace violence. Most incidents of workplace violence occur in the form of assault, battery, stalking, threats, harassment (including sexual harassment), and emotional abuse.

Do employers have a legal responsibility regarding workplace violence? Although the law has not been fully developed in this area, most legal counsel do see employers as having some degree of employer liability. For example, Louisiana courts have found that an employer is liable if it negligently hires (or retains) someone who it knows (or should have known) is capable of workplace violence. Also, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSHA”) contains a broad general duty clause. In addition to complying with the specific standards enumerated by OSHA, the Act also requires employers to provide its employees a place of employment which is free from “recognized hazards.” In recent years, OSHA experts have said that workplace violence is a recognized hazard under the general duty clause. Employers who fail to take precautions to prevent workplace violence could be sanctioned by OSHA, in addition to being subject to legal liability.

How can employers prevent workplace violence and protect themselves from liability? Although there are several preventative measures that should be taken, the best place for any employer to start is to have a written workplace violence policy. The policy should at a minimum (1) state that the employer is committed to preventing workplace violence; (2) list examples of what the employer considers to be workplace violence; and (3) state that employees who partake in workplace violence are subject to discipline, up to and including termination. In addition, the policy should set forth mechanisms for reporting workplace violence and the procedures under which such reports will be investigated. Although a comprehensive and enforced policy will not be the only way that an employer can prevent workplace violence, it surely is a good place for the employer to start.