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Can Employees Sue You If They're Victimized on the Job?

written by: •edited by: Linda Richter•updated: 5/19/2011

If one of your employees punches another employee in the face, are you responsible? What if when walking to their parked car in a dark parking lot a female employee is assaulted by a co-worker? These acts of violence happen all the time--but as an employer, are you liable? Jean Scheid takes a look.

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    Employee Violence: A No-Win Situation

    Fighting at Work Employee violence at the workplace is growing--and for many reasons, including financial hardships, safety issues, terminations and workplace bullying. If employees really do get into it, what are the rules on employer liability for workplace victimization?

    Believe it or not, failure to initiate background checks in the hiring process, being negligent in disciplining and warning violent employees, and failing to have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment and bullying could mean you might be liable.

    So, what are employers to do these days? The Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) states that over 500 workplace deaths in 2009 were the result of workplace violence, and that number keeps rising.

    Many employers are asking how they can possibly be responsible for an employee’s bad acts. If you’re an employer or HR manager, this isn’t the old days, so it’s time to be prepared, set some policies and stick to the rules you set.

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    What the Law Says

    Violence or victimization in the workplace is covered by OSHA safety standards and courts look to those standards if lawsuits come about. Some of the reasons you could be held accountable include:

    Negligence – Some jobs such as teaching or working with kids or the elderly may require a background check; however, other jobs do not. Failing to check one’s background, and if they subsequently become violent at work, could mean you are liable.

    Retaining Bullies – If you have an employee consistently bullying others and you do nothing about it, by retaining the employee, labor law courts may look to you as the responsible party. Repeat offenders allowed to stay on the job should be dealt with swiftly instead of allowing them to continue with the abuse.

    Workplace Stress – Employees who feel they are victimized at work may develop mental health or stress problems. By ignoring the victim, employers may find themselves involved in a huge lawsuit.

    It's so imperative you learn how to prevent these situations of workplace violence.

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    Keeping Everyone Safe

    Implement Policies and Procedures These days it’s not enough to post signs or posters in employee break rooms or have a single workplace violence paragraph in your employee handbook. Why? Violence via one employee on another is a big problem in today’s working environment, but there are some things you can do.

    First, you need to be clear on the rules, not only for your state but also what the U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA say about workplace violence, especially when it’s one employee battling another. Take the time to visit your local department of labor and ask the tough questions with scenarios on what you could possibly be liable for if a situation arises.

    Attend workplace violence seminars, which you can find online by doing a simple Google search. Employer liability for workplace victimization training is invaluable in keeping everyone safe.

    You need to implement a zero tolerance policy on issues such as harassment, discrimination, workplace bullying and violence. When instances arise, they need to be investigated fully and the appropriate action taken, even if that means firing the offending employee. OSHA offers a great sample workplace violence policy that you can download from our Media Gallery.

    Employers should check with their business liability insurance carrier on what coverages they have in the event workplace violence gets out of hand. Some liability insurance policies don’t offer this exact type of coverage and it must be issued as a rider or add-on. If you do have this coverage, look to your insurance carrier for help on employee training videos and policies—most offer them for free, because they’d rather not defend you or your business in court for failure to implement necessary policies.

    Finally, with violence becoming so prominent these days, all business owners and HR managers should seek the advice of a labor law attorney to ensure your policies and procedures are accurate. A labor law attorney can also suggest how to deal with violations, ensure policies are up to date, and also determine if these policies are firm and fair across the board.