Posted by Melissa Fleischer, Esq. on Dec 3rd 2015

A holiday party at work.  One employee leaves a little upset.  Who would have ever expected that he would return with his wife and an arsenal of assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns and engage in the worst US mass violence attack since Sandy Hook in 2012.  However, this is exactly what happened yesterday in San Bernardino, CA at the Inland Regional Center.  What can employers do to prevent such violence and were there any warning signs that could have helped them be better prepared?

Of course, we still know little about this attack and therefore the answers to some of these and other questions may become more apparent when we have more information.  But for now, some of what we do know, as reported by CNN, is that the employee involved, Syed Rizwan Farook had worked for his employer, the San Bernardino County Health Department, for approximately five years.  He was a very religious Muslim according to his father and recently had taken a vacation to go to Saudi Arabia to meet a woman he met through an online dating service.  They returned from Saudi Arabia as husband and wife.

Was this a warning sign missed by his employer?  Possibly.  How many people meet someone on a dating site and then travel across the world to marry them in a country where there are many radicals.  Once he returned, he purchased some of the guns used in this attack legally.  His online dating profile also reportedly stated that he enjoyed among other activities, “target practice in the backyard”.  All taken alone perhaps not enough to be warning signs.  But as always, when we look back at all these incidents taken together, they could appear to be warning signs that he may have become radicalized by this woman online and agreed to marry her and carry out attacks in the US.  Of course, this is all complete speculation.

Unfortunately, this incident happened only a few months after another deadly attack at a television station in Roanoke, VA.  That incident followed a more common workplace violence theme in which a terminated employee returns to the workplace to seek revenge on those he blames for his termination.  That attack involved a former reporter for television station KDBJ, whose stage name was Bryce Williams, although his real name was Vester Lee Flanagan II.  Mr. Flanagan gunned down co-workers Alison Parker and Adam Ward while they were reporting live on TV.

In this case there were definite warning signs that an employer trained in how to prevent workplace violence might have recognized.  Management at the TV station described Flanagan as an “unhappy man” and as someone who had a reputation of being difficult to work with.  In addition, according to NBC News Investigations, the employment files at WDBJ stated that in 2013 when Bryce Williams had been terminated workers were warned to "call 911 immediately" if they ever were to see the former reporter Vester Lee Flanagan II at the television station again. What had Flanagan done to require such a warning if he ever returned?  Apparently,   while being terminated he threatened "You better call police because I'm going to make a big stink. This is not right."  The television station files apparently stated that after saying this Mr. Flanagan had to be physically lifted out by his chair by members of management during which time he threw a ball cap at a station employee.  Police were called in to remove him from the premises.  Apparently one of the victims of the shooting had recorded on film the entire termination years earlier.  The TV station did have police officers guarding the TV station from morning to night for the weekend after the termination but the question remains, could more have been done?

Although with Mr. Flanagan there were many warning signs that he might come back to seek revenge on his employer and with Syed Rizwan Farook there were less warning signs, the fact remains that there are actions that employers can and should take to attempt to protect against workplace violence.  First and foremost, employers must act to have a well-drafted workplace violence policy, train their staff on their workplace violence policy and engage in practice drills so that employees know how to respond if there were to be an active shooter in their workplace.  Employers also need to conduct background investigations on employees, engage in better performance management so that if they see an employee demonstrating warning signs they do something about it before it escalates and they should install better security in the workplace such as panic buttons and security guards, if possible.   HR also needs to conduct exit interviews so that if an employee does threaten to get even for the termination the employer can take precautionary steps to protect others in the workplace.  Although such steps do not guarantee there will not be an instance of workplace violence, they can help to ensure that workers are better prepared to know how to respond to an instance of workplace violence and that management has taken the necessary steps to protect the workplace as much as possible.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims in these horrific acts of workplace violence.