Dealing With Potentially Violent Employees: Lessons Learned From the Murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward
August 31, 2015
Proactivity and careful documentation are the HR professional's keys to dealing with potentially violent employees.

Proactivity and careful documentation are the HR professional’s keys to dealing with potentially violent employees.

The senseless and brutal murders of Roanoake, Va. Television reporter Alison Parker, 24, and her cameraman Adam Ward, 27 in Moneta, Virginia this week by a disgruntled and deranged former employee, Vester Lee Flanagan (using the stage name “Bryce Williams”), have a lot of employers wondering what this particular news station could have done differently.

It’s not that Flanagan’s violence came as a complete surprise to his employers. This particular individual had already gone through a range of possible employer responses to particularly problematic employees short of termination. According to station management, the company made an employee assistance program available to their work force. Flanagan’s outbursts and confrontational behavior had already led the station to issue an ultimatum to Flanagan: Obtain counseling for his anger and impulse control, or face termination of employment.

Flanagan complied with the ultimatum and got the required counseling, but it wasn’t enough. Further outbursts against staffers and management led the station to fire him anyway. The management had to call police to escort him off the premises.

That was two years ago.

This summer, Flanagan put down a payment on a gun two days after the Charleston Church shootings, and on August 26th, ambushed Parker and Ward while they were out in the field shooting a story and shot them both to death. He also shot Vicki Gardner, the executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, in the back. Gardner is expected to recover.

Flanagan then fled the scene, and took to social media:

Flanagan tweets

According to reporting from CNN, Flanagan had made a long list of complaints against coworkers to HR staff and station management – much of which focused on perceived racist remarks and behavior on the part of other employees. However, in each case, an investigation concluded that the complaints were unfounded. A spokesperson for the station denies that Flanagan’s eventual dismissal was related to the complaints.

However, a number of documents have been unearthed (leaked), documenting repeated complaints that other workers had about Flanagan, and that he was formally counseled that his behavior was aggressive and threatening to other employees.

Flanagan, for his part, had filed suit against the station after his dismissal.

Ultimately, the actions taken by the station were sufficient to get Flanagan out of the workplace. But no measure short of incarceration could have guaranteed that Flanagan would not eventually track down the two station employees as the were out on location interviewing a member of the community, flip on a camera, approach them in cold blood and fire six or seven shots to kill two of them and wound a third.

What lessons can be learned here?

From the management’s point of view, there are three separate but related objectives:

  1. Most importantly, protect innocent employees and others from violence.
  2. Protect the station from potential liability.
  3. Protect the rights of the employee accused of misconduct.

So how did they do?

As for item one, obviously, Flanagan eventually exploded and took two good employees down before shooting himself rather than face capture. The company succeeded in getting him into counseling, records show, but you know what they say about leading horses to water.

As for item two, protect the station from potential liability, the HR staff appears to have done quite well – both from the standpoint of eventual defense against a discrimination or wrongful termination claim, and from the standpoint of being able to defend the station’s good name in the court of public opinion. The tell: When push came to shove, and the reporters came calling, the station actually had documents to leak. These documents conclusively show the following:

  • Multiple employees had already complained about Flanagan.
  • Flanagan had been formally counseled about his problematic behavior, in writing.
  • The station had given Flanagan multiple chances to save his job.
  • The company had made counseling available at little or no cost.
  • The problem behavior persisted.

HR staff actually carefully documented Flanagan’s last day of work, and even videotaped his behavior. Flanagan’s suit went nowhere. Case dismissed.

Meanwhile, the copious documentation of managements’ efforts to redeem Flanagan and document his final hours in the station also eventually allowed the TV station to get ahead of the news cycle and make it a story about a violent, murderous gunman and his senseless crime, rather than a story about poor response to a potentially violent employee. In all, the station was able to release at least 21 pages of formal counseling and advice to Flanagan (who was working at the station under the name “Bryce Williams”) and documentation of its efforts to rehabilitate their reporter before he was eventually let go – including the order to receive medically competent counseling.

Nothing can bring the two young staffers back, but it appears that the station had done about all that can be expected of an employer. Obviously, the responsibility for the crime lies with Flanagan and Flanagan alone.

Applicability to other workplaces

If anything the news station may have been too patient with Flanagan. Once his disordered personality had been established, and he had been threatening to other employees, the station may have taken too much time to build a case and eventually terminate him – allowing more and more misplaced resentment to build over the months. Many companies may not want to take that much time with a troublesome and threatening employee like Flanagan – particularly when those man-hours can be productively awarded to a more deserving employee.

But the careful documentation HR prepared from the beginning of Flanagan’s employment appear to be a model of good human resources work: A fundamental principal of HR is this: Give the boss options. If the documentation is there in copious detail that the boss has more than enough justification to terminate a disgruntled employee and withstand any likely legal complaint, the HR team has done its job. It’s up to management to make the decision from there. But with an HR team like that, management could feel confident that they could make the best decision for the safety of the staff without

Furthermore, while employees had felt threatened by Flanagan’s words and actions, he had not actually attacked anybody. There was never any single slam-dunk event to establish him as a violent worker. All complaints were just that: complaints. Each had to be investigated, and in today’s litigious environment, before HR can fire an employee likely to bring unlawful discrimination claims (Flanagan was black) or sexual orientation discrimination claims (he was also gay), the station management knew they had to have their ducks in a row, or they would expose the station to significant liability.

Best Practices for Dealing With Workplace Violence

Violence can happen to any workplace. It can come from employees, employee family members and significant others, obsessive and jilted lovers or violent exes, or random acts of street violence. While no workplace is immune, here are some of the best practices to help prevent violence and give the boss options when it comes to dealing with the potentially violent employee:

Update your policy manuals. Have a written workplace violence policy and protocol in place, and ensure middle managers follow it company wide. It’s difficult to press a discrimination lawsuit if any actions against employees are made in accordance with the policy and the policy is consistently implemented all over the company. Have a zero tolerance policy regarding threats and acts of violence. Your employees deserve no less.

Monitor email and Internet use. This isn’t foolproof, but in many cases the employee’s browser history and correspondence over employer-owned devices can provide an early warning as well as documentation to justify a quick decision to terminate. Your policy manual should expressly state that employers have no expectation of privacy over company networks or devices.

Retain deleted messages. Speak to your IT personnel about how to do this. This prevents employees from being able to delete threatening correspondence themselves from the company servers.

Know the law. For example, understand how workplace violence interfaces with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Normally, employers must make reasonable accommodations to retain employees with a disability. Someone afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, for example, may not be able to control some vocal inflections or outbursts, and they are normally harmless. However, there is nothing in the ADA that requires employers to tolerate genuinely threatening or violent behavior, even if it’s connected with known mental health issues, provided the provision is consistently enforced and the conduct rule, or rules, are job-related and rooted in business necessity.

You may have to put up with a certain amount of tardiness or other non-violent behaviors if they are rooted in a disability. But threats and violence towards other employees are not on the list. The ADA specifically exempts from its protection behaviors that result in a direct threat to other staff, customers or the general public.

That said, the courts have held that the decision to terminate based on threats or violence must be based on sound medical reasoning, and not based on biases or prejudices toward any given condition. For example, you cannot fire someone with schizophrenia simply because you believe that schizophrenics are violent. The decision has to be grounded in statements and actions that are specific to the individual and the circumstances of the workplace.

Document everything. Every meeting with a potentially troublesome employee should be documented with a memorandum for record, an email recapping the conversation, or other permanent records. Keep these records on hand indefinitely, for you never know when a violent employee or former employee may strike.

Lastly, remember that the murders occurred only two days ago. First reports are often wrong, and the investigation into the deaths of Alison Parker and Adam Ward are ongoing. New information can and probably will come to light. HR workers should apply themselves in the effort to understand what was good about the station’s efforts to deal with Flanagan’s behavior while he was an employee, and what could be improved upon in future cases.