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Virginia Shooting Tragedy: What Employers Need to Know


Virginia Shooting Tragedy: What Employers Need to Know

September 1, 2015

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.

  1. Consider whether criminal background checks would be appropriate. Click here for more information.
  2. Check applicants’ references. Many employers limit their references to title and dates of employment based on state law limitations or out of a fear of defamation suits. One way to avoid these concerns is to require prospective employers to provide you with a release from your former employee.
  3. Publicize and enforce a strong workplace violence policy.
  4. Ensure all employees are treated with dignity and respect.
  5. Train managers to recognize warning signs and to diffuse potentially dangerous situations.
  6. Take all threats seriously and conduct a complete investigation.
  7. Have a good Employee Assistance Program.
  8. Train managers to realize the devastating effect that termination can have on someone and take that into account while speaking with employees.
  9. Consider allowing terminated employees to continue utilizing EAP.
  10. Enact a comprehensive disaster relief plan and do not be afraid to involve the authorities if there are concerns of violence.

For more information or assistance on updating employment policies and procedures, please contact a member of the Goldberg Segalla Employment and Labor Practice Group.