Attempting to Prevent Workplace Violence

Amy Bishop, a 42-year-old biology professor at the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH), walked into a biology faculty meeting on Friday, February 12, and according to eyewitnesses, opened fire on her colleagues, killing three and wounding three others. She is charged with capital murder and the death penalty may be sought. Obviously this a nightmare for the victims’ families and friends, the university and the community of Huntsville.

As the shock of this gruesome event settled in to my brain, the questions about workplace violence prevention arose. Could this horrific mass shooting have been prevented by policies, background checks, or alert coworkers? The question is unanswerable, of course, but trying to answer it is the only way we can learn something from this tragedy.

One method that an employer can use to prevent workplace violence is to thoroughly check the criminal and employment background of any prospective employee. There is speculation about Amy Bishop’s background, including suspicion that she was involved in the killing of her own brother and in sending of a mail bomb to a former boss. However, no criminal convictions were recorded in these incidents so they would have been of no help to a human resources professional trying to check Bishop’s background.

A much clearer sign of a potential problem was her guilty plea to misdemeanor assault and disorderly conduct in 2002 for punching a woman in the head at an IHOP after the victim took the last booster seat just as Bishop arrived with her children. The victim told officers that Bishop started a profanity-filled argument and at one point shouted, “I am Dr. Amy Bishop”. Some of the news stories now say that Bishop was put on probation and ordered to take anger management classes. If so, a criminal record would exist. Any employer who finds violent crimes on a prospective employee’s criminal record, even if they are misdemeanors, should think carefully about whether that applicant’s abilities are worth the risk to others in the workplace.

A thorough reference check with Bishop’s past employers might have revealed some personality issues that could have raised red flags. Granted, many past employers will only give out dates of employment, rate of pay and job titles. But if a prospective employer will fax to the former employer a release signed by the applicant absolving the former employer of any liability for giving out real information during the reference check, the conversation will usually be much more revealing.

In Bishop’s case, UAH might have discovered that Bishop, as one FBI profiler said, was “wired in a way that any rejection, either real or imaginary, is seen as an insult against her very existence and self-esteem. Her narcissistic ego was impugned and threatened.” People like Bishop, who have a tendency to blame others whenever things go wrong in their lives, who show anger often and who retaliate aggressively, may have left an indelible impression on past employers. The trick is to get them to relate those personality problems to you as a prospective employer so you can reject that applicant before he or she becomes an irritant, or worse, an aggressor, in your workplace.

Of course, as an employment attorney, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects those with mental illnesses from discrimination in hiring if the applicant is qualified and can perform the job with or without reasonable accommodation. However, you will not know that the applicant has a mental illness from just a  reference check. You simply will have identified some negative behaviors that are unacceptable in your workplace. This is always a good reason to pass over that applicant in favor of someone equally well qualified who doesn’t have poor reports from past employers.

Finally, after you have hired an employee, your best protection from violence occurring in your workplace is a policy that makes it very clear that even threats of violence are prohibited and may cost an employee her job. Training of all employees, but particularly supervisors, to recognize and identify certain suspicious behavior can be helpful. Granted, in academia as in other work environments, the line between eccentricity and madness may be a very thin one. But no one should be allowed to make specific threats, carry a weapon (even in a car in the company parking lot), or physically fight with a coworker without the employer taking serious disciplinary action, including possible termination.

The truth is that no employer can make a workplace 100% safe from someone as irrational and violent as Amy Bishop appears to be. However, that doesn’t give you license as an employer to fail to do everything you can to prevent such an occurrence in your workplace.

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