A recent article in the New York Times has once again highlighted the issue of violence in the workplace – but this time the focus is on the employer’s response to a woman who reported that her estranged husband had threatened her life.  Her manager sent her home and she was told not to return until she had received a protective order against her husband. After she contacted the New York Attorney General, the employee was returned to work and the employer, Bon-Ton Stores, entered into a settlement requiring training in all of its New York locations about treatment of domestic violence victims. http://nyti.ms/1YhfQDC

There is a caveat to this scenario – in New York, where this incident took place, there is a law that protects victims of domestic violence from retaliation and harassment relating to their abuse.  There is no comparable law in Tennessee (although OSHA may cover employees who report concerns about safety).  So why include this in a Tennessee Employment Law Blog?

Workplace Violence should concern all employers. OSHA reports that over 2 million Americans are victims of workplace violence each year.  In 2014, there were 403 workplace homicides reported in the U.S.  Employers need to be concerned about providing a safe work environment for their employees; but, many employers do not have a workplace violence protocol in place that would allow them to respond appropriately and quickly in what is likely to be an imminent threat scenario.

In the New York case, the company was cited for not having a policy in place to deal with the imminent threat and the manager’s knee-jerk reaction led to confusion and a potentially dangerous response – sending the employee home in distress and unsure whether she would continue to have a source of income.

Ultimately Bon-Ton put a safety plan into effect (in consultation with the employee and the Attorney General) which included allowing the employee to park closer to the store, giving her access to a safe room to elude her husband and allowing her to use a cellphone while working in the event of a threat.

When faced with an employee who reports a threat, the employer should assess the immediate risk, consult with the employee and legal counsel if necessary, and put a plan into place that best protects the employee and the safety of all employees in the workplace.  One size will not fit all, but putting some thought into the elements of a safety plan before it is needed will lead to a better outcome.
OSHA has resources available online at : https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/workplaceviolence/index.html

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