Employers obviously want, and also have a legal obligation, to take reasonable steps to keep their workplace safe. As we have seen from recent news, we live in an uncertain world where events can happen that are beyond our control, however, employers can take steps to decrease the likelihood of workplace violence.
While employers often have an obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disabilities including mental health issues, an employer cannot ignore a threat of violence against a co-worker and a mentally ill employee is not legally permitted to threaten co-workers. When in doubt as to whether a threat of violence is real, contacting local law enforcement and employment counsel is prudent. Depending on the circumstances, a suspension during an investigation into the accusation may be prudent and if serious enough the employee may be involuntarily committed to the psychiatric unit of the local hospital. Of course if an accusation of an employee’s threat of violence is determined real, then the disciplinary action depending on the level of the threat may range from a written warning to a firing. For example, a threat to rip a hat with a political message off a co-employee’s head may result in a written warning wherein a threat to kill will likely result in a firing.
Before a threat of violence occurs, security measures should be considered such as whether doors to areas not accessible to the public are opened solely by key or combination and placement of panic buttons.
Employers should have written policies provided to the employees related to weapons and avoiding confrontations. Employers may ban firearms and other weapons from the private workplace, including the business parking lot, irrespective of an employee’s claim of their constitutional Second Amendment rights or that they have a right under New Hampshire law to carry a firearm; concealed or unconcealed in public. The employer can require that co-workers to treat each other with mutual respect and dignity and prohibit them from raising their voices and getting into heated conversations; whether it be about politics or other issues unrelated to work. Employees who are engaging in a conversation about work issues are permitted to have some level of a dispute about work issues under federal and state law, yet disputes unrelated to work such as politics are not protected speech in the private workplace. Similar to the constitutional Second Amendment right to bear arms, the constitutional First Amendment right of freedom of speech, prevents the government from prohibiting your free speech. It does not, however, prevent a private employer from prohibiting political disputes between co-workers. With the current political climate, it is prudent for employees to not argue with co-workers about politics in that at best the relationship will be tarnished and at worst the argument may disrupt the workplace or even turn violent.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].