On August 26, 2015, Vester Lee Flanagan, II shot and killed Alison Parker and Adam Ward, two Roanoke, Virginia journalists. Much has been — and will continue to be — written regarding this incident from the perspective of how it relates to gun control, mental health, or race relations. While this incident is extreme and tragic, workplace violence is not uncommon. Employers must assess the preventative measures they have in place and their disaster readiness in order to minimize the likelihood and impact of violence in the workplace.
Flanagan worked for WDBJ-TV from March 2012 to February 2013. The Guardian obtained internal memos that shed some light on his time at the station, reporting that within just two months of working there, he had already, on multiple occasions, made co-workers feel threatened or uncomfortable. Two months later, his behavior resulted in his being required to contact EAP or face termination. According to the memos, when he was later terminated, Flanagan refused to leave the station and was quoted as stating, “I’m going to make a stink and it’s going to be in the headlines.” Flanagan then stormed out of the room and slammed the door. While the police were escorting him out of the building, he reportedly threw a hat and a small wooden cross at his boss and said, “You need this.” Flanagan later filed suit against WDBJ alleging discrimination and harassment; that case was dismissed in 2014.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that on average, 1,700,000 workers are injured each year as a result of workplace violence, while the National Center for Victims of Crime reported that 1 of 6 violent crimes experienced by U.S. residents occur at work. With statistics like this, it’s not surprising that employers are taking various steps to combat workplace violence — and to that end, most human resources organizations recommend that employers perform comprehensive background checks of job applicants.
Despite what might now be considered warning signs, there was no way for anyone to anticipate that this tragedy in Virginia would occur. However, there are steps employers can take to try to reduce the chances that this will happen to them.
For more information or assistance on updating employment policies and procedures, please contact a member of the Goldberg Segalla Employment and Labor Practice Group.