Checking violence in the workplace You shouldn't ignore the warning signs, experts advise.

October 23, 1991|By Michelle Singletary | Michelle Singletary,Evening Sun Staff

The next time an employee begins to exhibit odd behavior, it may be wise not to ignore the worker, say attorneys and mental health experts.

"More and more people are acting out their rage at work," warns Suzanne Reynolds, assistant director of Sheppard Pratt Employee Assistance Programs.

And employers are increasingly finding themselves in a Catch-22 situation. An employer's ability to obtain information about a job applicant is hindered by the hesitancy of companies to provide extensive information because they fear suits alleging defamation or invasion of privacy. But an employer can be a target of negligent hiring lawsuits brought by other employees or individuals injured by an employee.

"The problem for employers has become how do we prevent violence at the workplace and what to we do when it happens?" said Jana Howard Carey, a partner with the Baltimore law firm of Venable, Baetjer & Howard.

At the Columbia Hilton yesterday, Reynolds and Carey sat on a panel of experts who advised human resource managers representing more than 70 Maryland companies. The managers are attending an intense two-day conference that concludes today on personnel law issues.

The conference is put on by the California-based Council on Education in Management.

"I have learned violence in the workplace takes on many forms and doesn't always come at the point of a knife or gun," said Andrew C. Goresh, director of human resources for T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. "Employers can not continue to say it probably will not happen to me."

Goresh, also a labor attorney, said that following the stock market crash in 1987, a receptionist at T. Rowe Price became concerned about bomb threats the firm was receiving.

After seeking advice from the Baltimore police, Goresh said, the firm set up a security system that allows receptionists to secretly notify an operator to call 911 if they find themselves in potentially threatening situations.

"Employees are saying they expect to be taken care of in the workplace," Goresh said.

In recent years, disgruntled employees, estranged spouses and mentally disturbed individuals have intruded into the work place, killing employees and often themselves. Here are just a few examples of such incidents:

* In July, Calloway F. Hatcher, 56, a veteran of 27 years on the city police force, shot two supervisors then killed himself. He had been arrested and charged with the sexual molestation of a young relative.

* In June, Arnold Bates, 34, walked into a Baltimore Department of Social Services office on the west side and stabbed to death Tanja Brown-O'Neal, 29, a caseworker. Bates had been arguing with the victim about food stamps.

* Edward Thomas Mann is in prison for killing three co-workers in a shooting rampage at IBM's North Bethesda facility in 1982.

* In 1989, Emanuel Tsegaye, disgruntled over being disciplined, shot and killed three female co-workers and then turned the gun on himself in the Bethesda branch of the Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank. He was a collector in the credit department.

The recession and the layoffs it caused and the wide availability of movies about adults acting out their frustrations with weapons has employers wondering whether they can realistically provide a safe workplace, Carey said.

Typically, Reynolds said, about 20 percent of the people in any one work force have severe personal problems that affect their job performances. "Mental health professionals are swamped with a myriad of cases of violence," she said.

Hired to develop a crisis intervention plan for Chevy Chase after the shooting incident, Reynolds devised a six-page guide on how to deal with crisis situations in the workplace. The guide advises creating a crisis team made up of various people in the company. But most importantly, it says a firm should have an effective communicator who is respected by the staff.

While spotting a potentially violent employee can be tough, Reynolds said that supervisors often overlook the first clues that signal a worker who may explode. Such profiles include a person who is non-communicative, or is described by co-workers as "wound up like a spring," or someone who seems "strange" and has a distorted view of facts and a sense of always being a victim.

"If a supervisor is walking on eggs around an employee, or constantly solving interpersonal problems, then you may have a troubled worker," Reynolds said. "Employers have to be more vigilant than ever."

The panel outlined preventive measures that employers could take:

* Screen job applicants. It is important to document all efforts to obtain background information. Documentation may be needed to defend against hiring an employee who has a violent nature. However, checking references can be fraught with potential legal liabilities and employers should be cautious in pursuing this step without legal counsel.

* Develop a plan for dealing with emergency situations. The guide should include a list of company officials to be contacted in the event of an emergency and also evacuation plans.

* At least two employees in each department should be trained in handling emergencies.

* Supervisors should be trained in how to spot and respond to potentially violent situations.

* Develop a referral policy, which may be an employee assistance program, or merely a list of local agencies or counselors that could help in the event of a crisis.

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