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The Company's At Fault...Or Is It?

The family of a man gunned down at his office Sept. 27 has sued his employer, claiming his managers botched the firing of the employee, who then attacked and killed six co-workers. According to the lawsuit, Accent Signage Systems managers should have known the killer employee, Andrew J. Engeldinger, was dangerous based on his work history and frequent intoxication at work.

Company managers had repeatedly cited Engeldinger for offensive behavior, tardiness and poor job performance. Company managers gave him a reprimand letter a week before the shooting and told Engeldinger his performance had to immediately improve or he'd be terminated.

Toward the end of the workday, Engeldinger was told to head to his manager's office. He left the building, grabbed a gun and two loaded magazines, each carrying 15 bullets, from his car before meeting with his manager. When managers John Souter and Rami Cooks fired Engeldinger and gave him his final paycheck, he opened fire, killing both.

He also killed the company owner, a UPS deliveryman and co-worker Joseph Beneke before taking his own life.

Beneke's family contends company managers should have known Engeldinger had violent tendencies, owned guns, was mentally ill and could harm or kill others. They allege the company acted carelessly and was negligent when it gave Engeldinger advance notice of his possible firing and allowed him to go to his car. The lawsuit notes the company had no security cameras to film Engeldinger as he retrieved his weapon and no extra security on hand for the termination meeting.

They argue that the company should have trained its employees how to fire an employee and should have taken security precautions when firing a potentially violent employee. According to the lawsuit, "A reasonable employer in Accent's position would have, among other things, provided adequate security on its premises, locked its doors, monitored Engeldinger, and would have attempted to terminate Engeldinger in a safe manner."

Others who knew Engeldinger was to be fired, including Beneke, were aware that he was prone to violence.

This tragedy, nowadays unfolding in a depressing number of workplaces, raises many questions. Although most experts who analyze workplace shootings say there are often warning signs of trouble, many companies aren't prepared to handle potentially violent employees.

Christy Zajack, managing director of the human relations firm GWR, has guided companies through such situations. "When an employee makes a veiled threat or displays other violence tendencies, employers need to take swift action -- without backing the employee into a corner. They should have the employee undergo a medical-psychological assessment with a medical readiness-to-work clearance.

"If we need to terminate, we work to maintain the employee's dignity," adds Zajack. We let the employee vet concerns through discussion and the appeals process; extend employee assistance benefits; give severance and outplacement assistance. All of this helps minimize anger; gives the employee other thoughts on which to focus and helps the employee transition away from our company. While the process can be expensive, these extra benefits aren't as costly as a lawsuit or putting lives at risk."

"The general duty clause of OSHA," notes lawyer Michael Lotito, "requires employers to provide a safe workplace. However, we need to realize we view these tragic situations with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. It is easy to say, 'They should have known,' or 'never should have let him back into the building,' but, in fact, employees are terminated every day without the precautions that might have prevented this disaster."

Lotito identifies potential precautions such as "having security specialists review the physical environment to ensure safety precautions are made, training for managers in handling violent behavior and potentially consulting with a threat specialist to analyze the best approach."

Labor relations manager Jim Waldo further advocates defusing "the immediacy of potentially emotionally-laden discharges by substituting a suspension pending investigation, because this gets the employee off-site and gives time for the employee to cool-off."

Says Lotito: "When employers are proactive, they can at least say, 'We did all we could,' even if it proves not to be enough."

Finally, managers take a risk when they give violent employees advance notice of termination meetings. As lawyer Charles Krugel notes: "When Engeldinger left the building to go to his car prior to the meeting, he signaled a warning. Employers who ignore those warning signs risk lives."

Was this company at fault?

Perhaps. But more importantly, might yours be similarly at risk?

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management-employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10.

Lynne Curry, February 2013, www.thegrowthcompany.com

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