On November 22, 2022, a Virginia Walmart employee reportedly opened fire in a staff break room, killing six co-workers and injuring several others. On January 23, 2023, a California mushroom farm employee shot and killed seven people at two locations, one of which was his place of employment.  These tragedies are just two examples of workplace violence that has become all too common in the United States. Every year, thousands of American workers report that they witness or are victims of workplace violence, ranging from harassment to homicide.  These incidents also often lead to reports of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to injuries and tragic loss of life, incidents of workplace violence can result in increased costs and legal liability for employers. For example, at least one victim in the November 2022 Walmart shooting sued Walmart, seeking $50 million. In the complaint, the victim alleged that Walmart continued to employ the shooter despite numerous written complaints and knowledge of the shooter’s bizarre and threatening behavior leading up to the shooting. Possible claims against employers in the wake of workplace violence can include:

  • Negligent hiring, training, retention, and supervision;
  • Infliction of emotional distress;
  • Breach of duty to warn;
  • Breach of duty to provide adequate security; and
  • Breach of contract (implied or express).

With many motivations to avoid incidents of workplace violence, the following are some preventative and responsive steps that employers can take:

  1. Pre-employment screening. When considering applicants, employers should examine any unexplained gaps in employment, check references, examine any prior discharges, and look for signs of instability. Employers should pay special attention to “red flags” such as a history of drug or alcohol abuse, past conflicts with co-workers, convictions for violent crimes, a defensive or hostile attitude, or tendencies to blame others for problems.
  • Current employee awareness. Supervisors and employees should remain vigilant for activities or behavior that may indicate the potential for workplace violence. Such activities or behavior may include: bringing weapons to work and/or displaying weapons; vandalizing or sabotaging company property; violating others’ privacy (searching desks, stalking, etc.); or making direct or veiled threats. Violent employees rarely “just snap” – they typically exhibit a pattern of angry or aggressive behavior before they act.
  • Workplace violence training. Employers should implement periodic training for all employees, regardless of position, to educate them about: basic facts concerning workplace violence; the relationship between domestic violence and workplace safety; employer-specific workplace violence policies and employees’ rights and obligations under those policies; and how to identify and report problem behavior. Supervisors also should undergo training on how to properly escalate a report of workplace violence. Finally, employers should consider developing and conducting active shooter drills with all employees, such as teaching “Run, Hide, Fight” tactics.
  • Crisis and threat assessment teams. Employers can assemble an interdisciplinary group (comprised of employees from several departments such as human resources, security, legal, employee assistance, labor relations, etc.) to apply their knowledge and experience to develop a workplace violence prevention program. If appropriate, employers may want to include local law enforcement in their discussions.
  • Facility security measures. Employers should conduct a risk assessment of their facility and create a security plan.  Such a plan may include: limiting facility access to authorized personnel and instructing employees to not prop open doors; installing and maintaining a key card system; and installing security cameras.

While incidents of workplace violence never will be completely preventable, employers can dramatically decrease their risk with careful hiring practices, effective management and supervision, comprehensive policies and training, and regular crisis and risk assessment.

If you have questions about workplace violence prevention or any general labor or employment matters, feel free to contact Andrew Cleves (acleves@frantzward.com), Katie McLaughlin (kmclaughlin@frantzward.com), or another member of Frantz Ward’s Labor & Employment Group.