Thwart workplace violence

The risk of workplace violence raises several concerns for employers — including the potential for liability — as workplace violence lawsuits have resulted in millions of dollars in settlements and judgments.

An employer may be liable for violence committed by an employee as part of his or her job duties, such as if a security guard uses excessive force. Most courts, however, have refused to hold employers vicariously liable for the violent acts of employees because employers usually do not authorize violence.

An employee may also claim the employer was negligent, that the employer knew or should have known that the individual was unfit but hired and retained him or her anyway.

What can employers do to reduce the risk of violence in the workplace and minimize their liability?

Verify application information, do thorough background checks and ask about prior violent behavior. Even if an employer does not obtain usable information from references, or if the employee lies, the fact the employer asked helps protect against liability. In Pennsylvania, an employer may ask an applicant about a criminal record and may deny employment to a convicted felon if the conviction is related to the job duties.

The employer may not ask about misdemeanor or summary offense convictions or reject an applicant because of an arrest record or a prior conviction that was pardoned, unless the conviction is related to the job duties.

Train supervisors to recognize a potentially violent employee. Violent workers usually don’t just snap. They come to a slow boil.

Provide good premises security. Adequate lighting, silent alarms and cameras, controlled entry points and badging systems help deter violence and enable employers to respond quickly if it occurs.

Develop and enforce a workplace violence policy that explicitly prohibits intimidation, threats and violence and that bar weapons from the workplace. The policy should:

* Remind employees that the employer has the right to search automobiles, purses, desks, lockers and all areas of the employer’s premises.

* Encourage the reporting of violent behavior or threats by employees, regardless of where they occur.

* State that all reasonable efforts will be made to protect the confidentiality of the person who makes the report.

* Establish procedures for investigating reported acts or threats of violence.

* Stipulate that if reported conduct was violent or involved threats of serious injury, the suspect employee will be immediately suspended pending an investigation. Thomas A. Shumaker II and Allison L. Feldstein are lawyers with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott LLC. Reach them at