What employers need to know about guns and the workplace

Question:

Three weeks ago, we fired a hot-tempered employee who left cussing and shouting. Since then, several of our employees have made no secret of the fact that they’re “packing.”

This makes many of our employees nervous. Other employees, however, insist that the only way to keep everyone safe is to have guns easily accessible. Unfortunately, some of these employees are also hotheads. Our employee handbook doesn’t address this issue and we think it needs to. Can you help?

Answer:

Every employer needs to address violence in the workplace. Employers who ignore this issue potentially place employees at risk. Within the United States in 2014, intentional shootings killed 307 managers and employees in U.S. workplaces. Those surviving these shootings live with loss, grief, and the fear that another shooting may happen.

Employee handbooks address only a portion of the problem; employers also need to look at how they orient employees to survive workplace violence and whether their current background checks work as effectively as needed.

Your employee handbook can address whether or not you’ll allow employees or non-employees to bring guns into the workplace. Alaska’s concealed handgun permit statues don’t address whether those legally permitted to own guns can bring them to work or carry them into other’s workplaces. Alaska employers may, however, prohibit employees and others from bringing a firearm into a secured, restricted access area, such as a closed work area, if they post a conspicuous notice. Employers may also prohibit employees from leaving firearms in their vehicles if they park in an employer-owned or -controlled lot, if the lot is within 300 feet of the restricted work access area and not open to the general public. If the employer rents their space, they may need to provide the landlord an exception to this blanket ban.

Some employers create more nuanced policies that set some prohibitions but also make some allowances for employees who have guns, either in their possession or their vehicles, when those employees need their guns for personal off-duty reasons, such as hunting or commuting safety. Employers creating a nuanced policy need to consider how easily an employee can retrieve a gun from their parked car. If the employer employs security personnel, it needs to decide whether or not these employees may be armed.

Employers need to realize that they may be vicariously liable for wrongful acts by an employee who shoots another when “acting in the course and scope of employment.” In general, an employee who acts violently does so outside the scope of employment.

Further, because workers’ compensation laws don’t limit negligence claims from non-employees, an employer may face negligence claims from a third-party victim of workplace gun-related violence. For example, the victim or victim’s family could sue the employer for negligent hiring, negligent supervision or negligent retention if an employee with a known propensity for violence injures a customer, particularly if the employer “should have known” that the employee could cause harm to others and whether the employer acted reasonably.

This means employers need to supplement background checks with detailed reference checks. After a terminated reporter killed two others at a television station in August, many learned the news director at another station had been wise enough not to hire this reporter, after contacting six references and learning the reporter had a temper and had gotten into a physical altercation in a prior job. Some say this employer responsibility falls under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act’s “general duty clause,” that requires employers to provide “a place of employment … free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

Regardless of what policies an employer creates, no one can offer a guarantee against violence. Because of this, all employers may want to prepare their employees in terms of “run, hide, fight” and also give them a confidential channel for reporting concerns about potentially violent co-workers.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.

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