On the morning of July 23rd, 49-year-old Lillie Mae Foots-Wilson left the Pine Bluff plant where she worked, went home and got her .357-magnum pistol, returned to work and shot 34-year-old co-worker Latange Long. Long was pronounced dead at the scene from multiple gunshot wounds.
Foots-Wilson told police that Long had been harassing her. She said she and Long had been involved in an on-going dispute for six years, and that Long had bullied her, pushed her into a corner, called her names, sabotaged her machine, and took trash from her (Long’s) work area and put it in Wilson’s work area.
Foots-Wilson had filed complaints with management about the workplace harassment but nothing had been done. This would normally be grounds for a lawsuit, which is bad enough for a company, but in this case it ended in death.
Obligation to Act
“Employers must respond immediately upon becoming aware of a circumstance of harassment or a risk of violence, even if not directly reported by the worker or even if the worker does not want the employer to take any action,” says Stephen Bird, an Ottawa employment lawyer and partner in the firm Bird Richard.
“In Ontario, there is a legal obligation placed upon employers by the Occupational Health and Safety Act to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker. The legislation specifically requires employers to assess and identify risks of violence and harassment, and include measures to deal with complaints,” he says.
Similar laws in the US dictate that employers are responsible for ensuring the safety of workers when they complain of harassment or threats of violence.
“From a legal perspective, the reason to address harassment complaints quickly is to avoid liability,” says Ed Harold, an employment attorney in the New Orleans offices of Fisher and Phillips, LLP. “In most situations, if an employer is never put on notice of the conduct, it cannot be held liable for the conduct. However, if it is put on notice of the conduct and allows the conduct to continue, even for a week or two, it can be liable to the complaining employee for monetary damages,” he says, adding that the complaining employee could also quit in the meantime and assert a constructive discharge case, leading to bigger monetary damages for the employer.
What an Employer Must Do
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“The employer should immediately ensure the safety of the worker and take such steps as may be required in the circumstances to achieve this,” says Bird. “A thorough investigation of the complaint must follow, and the employer is then required to take such steps as may be appropriate to prevent a re-occurrence.”
In most cases, an employer should take some temporary action immediately,” adds Harold. “How much action is taken immediately depends on the severity of the alleged conduct and the possibility of the employee facing the conduct again before more permanent action can be taken. If the allegation is against a single employee, then the employer should immediately take an interim measure to prevent contact between the employees such as transferring one of the employees, providing paid leave, or changing shifts. The key is to take immediate action to minimize the possibility of the employee being subjected to the harassment after the complaint is made,” he says.
Consequences of Inaction
“Other than the legal obligation, a failure to act can sometimes have catastrophic consequences,” says Bird, citing three incidents of workplace violence that took place in Ontario:
- A 1996 fatal shooting of a woman by her boss who had sexually harassed her for more than a year and against whom she had filed a harassment complaint
- A 1999 incident in which a municipal bus employee, who had been continually taunted and harassed by co-workers, brought a hunting rifle to work and fatally shot four co-workers before taking his own life
- A 2005 fatal stabbing of a nurse by her ex-boyfriend, a physician who worked at the same hospital, which was aware of the harassment and its escalation, but took no steps to address the situation
“From a more practical perspective, employers that tolerate unpleasant environments lose quality employees who have the ability to find other jobs and do not need to tolerate the environment,” says Harold. “They are left with lower performing employees whose productivity is diminished by the environment.”