Disgruntled Employees & Gun Violence: The Disturbing New Reality

By Robert G. Chadwick, Jr., Managing Member, Seltzer, Chadwick, Soefje & Ladik, PLLC.

In the aftermath of the mass shooting at a municipal building in Virginia Beach on Friday, May 31st which left twelve dead and others wounded, two familiar words were used to describe the gunman – “disgruntled employee.”

In the past two years, workplaces in Virginia Beach (May 31, 2019), Aurora, Illinois (Feb. , 2019), Harford County, Maryland (Sept. 20, 2018), Edgewood, Maryland (Oct. 18, 2017), San Francisco, California (June 14, 2017), and Orlando, Florida (June 5, 2017) have been victims of mass shootings by gunmen described as “disgruntled” current or former employees. Workplace shootings by “disgruntled” current or former employees have also occurred in Albuquerque, New Mexico (Nov. 13, 2018), Las Vegas, Nevada (April 16, 2018), Birmingham, Alabama (March 14, 2018), Taylor, Michigan (February 1, 2018), Nashville, Tennessee (Jan. 11, 2018), Houston, Texas (Dec. 29, 2017), Bronx, New York (June 30, 2017), New York, New York (Oct. 5, 2017), Charleston, South Carolina (Aug. 24, 2017), Cleveland, Ohio (June 15, 2017). and Dallas, Texas (April 24, 2017), amongst other locations.

So, why the surge in shootings? Postulations regarding the phenomenon of school shootings may provide an answer. In an October 12, 2015 New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell theorized that school shootings are akin to “a slow-motion ever-evolving riot in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before.” If this theory is accurate as to “disgruntled” workers, the explanation for past shootings also serves as an ominous sign of the future.

If employers have not yet become alarmed regarding the prevalence of workplace shootings, their employees certainly have. According to data compiled by the Society for Human Resources Management (“SHRM”) in 2019, approximately one out of seven Americans do not feel safe at work.  The same data indicates that nearly 50% of human resources professionals have experienced a workplace violence incident.  In a March 19, 2019 press release, SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor remarked: “This data shows we have a lot of work to do in terms of security, prevention, training and response.”

To be sure, not all gun violence is preventable by an employer.  An unavoidable consequence of the prevalence of gun violence, however, is the increasing pressure to hold employers legally responsible. As noted in another blog article by this author, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (“OSHA”) can and has issued citations arising from workplace violence under the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. State worker’s compensation laws do not always insulate employers from wrongful death suits, especially in states where worker’s compensation insurance is optional.

With each new incident of gun violence, therefore, comes inevitable scrutiny as to the employer’s action or inaction beforehand. Increasingly, questions are being asked as to whether (1) the employer had a workplace violence prevention plan, (2) the “disgruntled” employee had a violent background before being hired by the employer, (3) the employer had policies and procedures regarding threats of workplace violence, (4) the employer had training for recognizing the signs of imminent violence, (5) there were any warning signs of violent behavior by the “disgruntled” employee, (6) the employer had security protocols for preventing firearms in the workplace, (7) the employer had security protocols for denying access to former employees, (8) the employer had a response plan, and (9) whether employees were trained as to the response plan.

The disturbing new reality for employers, therefore, is the immediate need to understand the importance and severity of the threat of gun violence by “disgruntled” workers. Guidance in this area is already available from OSHA and SHRM. From this guidance and legal advice, policies and procedures can be formulated by employers to mitigate the risk of loss of human life and legal liability.

Robert G. Chadwick, Jr. frequently speaks to non-profit organizations regarding labor & employment issues. To contact him for a speaking engagement please e-mail him at rchadwick@realclearcounsel.com

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