Employer’s Dilemma: What To Do About Angry But Noncriminal Workers


The killing of two Virginia journalists by a former colleague illustrates a nightmare for any employer: what to do with a volatile, constantly aggrieved worker who has had angry, even frightening confrontations with fellow workers yet has committed no crime, says the New York Times. With convictions or adjudiciations of mental illness, Vester Flanagan was able to buy his Glock 19 handgun legally after passing a background check. Flanagan’s ex-boss, Jeff Marks, said it might be possible to screen job applicants better, but he noted the difficulty of getting an honest reference from a former employer. Violent events like this week’s cannot be predicted, but there are things a company can do to reduce the risk of them occurring, say labor experts, psychologists and consultants in workplace safety. Suggestions include forming teams to monitor and provide help to workers who seem to be boiling over with bitterness and, if firing is necessary, doing so in a way to preserve the worker's dignity as much as possible, said psychologist J. Reid Meloy.

Employers face conflicting legal obligations and huge uncertainties. They have a duty to provide a safe workplace, and can be sued for failing to prevent predictable threats. They must tread carefully with employees with mental health problems. The federal disabilities act prohibits discrimination against those with mental illness. For every angry employee who might pose a serious threat, there are far more who will not act and whose rights must be respected. There is no sure screening method. “It's nuance,” said Linda Doyle, a employment law expert with McDermott Will & Emery in Chicago. “Not every one of these is a Mr. Flanagan,” she said. “The goal is to help the person be well and change the behavior, but the other goal is to protect your workplace.” Many companies refer troubled workers to employee assistance programs. Therapists are bound by confidentiality unless the patient makes a clear, immediate threat to harm himself or someone else. Nearly two million Americans each year report workplace violence.

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