Most employers have workplace rules. They are the stuff of handbooks and policy manuals and provide employees with a common set of acceptable workplace behaviors.
These days, employees are accustomed to seeing policies that establish a drug-free and smoke-free workplace, and state an organization’s zero tolerance sexual harassment rules.
But what about rules concerning violence and weapons in the workplace? Once again this question is in the spotlight, especially in states with laws that permit carrying concealed weapons.
In my role as a workplace policy consultant, I met with a Virginia hospital client about updating their handbook. On the agenda was a discussion of violence in the workplace. The human resources director was concerned about employees legally carrying concealed guns into the hospital. Some patients had become alarmed when they saw nurses, aides and other hospital workers wearing holstered guns under their scrubs and uniforms. When questioned by human resources, the employees maintained they were within their rights under Virginia law to carry concealed guns during their shifts.
Hospital management was uncomfortable with the idea of armed hospital workers. They wanted to know if there was anything they could do.
There was. When setting an organization’s policies, the employer should keep in mind that workplace rules may—under certain circumstances—be more restrictive than the laws that govern the general population.
The best example of this is a smoke-free workplace policy. These policies maintain smoke-free environments for the good of their employee population-at-large. Although individuals have the right to smoke in public places that permit it, in their homes and cars and generally out-of-doors, their employers may prohibit them from smoking while at work, or may restricted smoking to designated areas.
Weapons in the workplace policies use the same logic. State law may permit an individual to carry a concealed weapon in public, but when a person is at work, on duty, or on the employer’s property, he or she must comply with the employer’s policy on carrying weapons into the workplace. In accepting employment with an organization, employees agree to abide by the organization's rules.
By establishing and communicating a written policy that prohibits bringing guns to work, the employer sets the rules. Employees may not like an employer’s regulations, but compliance is part of the employment relationship. Employees who do not agree with certain employer policies have the freedom to find work elsewhere.
When it comes to setting rules about violence and weapons at work, a policy certainly isn’t going to stop individuals intent on random or targeted acts of violence. But here’s what a policy will do:
It explains to employees the reason for establishing the policy. For example: The company cares about the health and safety of our employees and strives to provide a safe and healthy work environment.
It establishes the employer’s right to ban weapons from the workplace for the health and safety of the workforce at large.
The policy makes clear to employees that weapons on company premises are prohibited. For example: The company has a significant interest in assuring every employee a safe and secure work environment. Accordingly, the company has zero tolerance regarding violence in the workplace and will proactively address any behavior that would potentially disrupt the organization’s ability to maintain a violence free work environment. Employees may not transport, carry, use, or display firearms or other weapons on company premises.
The policy specifies the consequences for breaking these rules. For example: Violation of this policy will result in corrective action, and potential termination of employment. Illegal activities discovered on company premises will be reported to law enforcement authorities.
A good policy includes the company's expectations for employees to report unsafe behavior. For example: An employee who identifies or suspects any unsafe or unhealthy work situation should report the condition immediately to the supervisor. The supervisor, together with other appropriate personnel, will investigate the condition and take any necessary steps to correct the problem.
With any newly established policy, there are always exceptions and specialty concerns to be worked out. Addressing violence and weapons in the workplace is no different. Here are some specific questions an organization might need to answer before establishing or updating a violence and weapons policy:
- What about security officers and their weapons, if any?
- Should the policy cover contract workers such as third party security companies?
- Are employees permitted to have weapons in their cars if the cars are parked on company property?
- Are there union issues or implications when considering such a policy?
- What search and seizure laws come into play?
In addition to providing employees with information about what is expected of them at work, the other purpose served by a written policy is to provide evidence of an employer’s best intentions in the event of legal action against the employer.
Remember, consultation with legal counsel is always advised when developing new workplace policies.