What could WDBJ7-TV have done to prevent Wednesday morning’s tragic on-air murders? Unfortunately, probably not a thing.
I’m a second-guesser, and I have spent much of the last 48 hours racking my brain about what the CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Virginia, could have done differently. Based on what I’ve been able to discern, the station did everything right.
(I see that Eric Meyer of The Employer Handbook agrees, more or less.)
Here is a rough recreation of my own internal dialogue:
That lawsuit against the station in Tallahassee should have been a big red flag. Yes, we know that Vester Lee Flanagan, II, aka Bryce Williams, filed a discrimination lawsuit (reportedly settled) against his previous employer, a television station in Tallahassee. That was in the year 2000. But Mr. Flanagan wasn’t hired at WDBJ until 2012. Even if WDBJ had done a civil records check before hiring Mr. Flanagan (not likely for a TV job – at most, all they would have done was a criminal check, which it appears would have been clean), they probably wouldn’t have looked back more than 10 years and therefore would have missed the lawsuit.
It would also have been illegal for the station to decline to hire Mr. Flanagan based only on the fact that he’d filed a discrimination lawsuit against a previous employer. (We call that “retaliation.”) And, Mr. Flanagan worked at other TV stations after the one in Tallahassee – including one in Savannah and one in Greenville, North Carolina – apparently without incident. So even if WDBJ had known about the suit against the Tallahassee station, they might not necessarily have seen Mr. Flanagan as a “serial plaintiff” with anger issues.
Well, ok, but couldn’t they have called the Tallahassee station for a reference? Of course, and they probably did. My guess is that the Tallahassee station provided dates of employment and positions held, and no other information. That’s normal practice, and even more normal when your former employee has an EEOC charge and lawsuit pending against you.
Maybe WDBJ should have been more attentive to Mr. Flanagan’s weird vibes? They were attentive, according to this personnel documentation published by The Guardian. They noticed it, addressed it, let Mr. Flanagan know the expectations, mentioned his inability to work with others in his performance review, gave him the tools he needed to improve (including counseling), and gave him well-documented progressive warnings and second chances – in other words, they did everything they were supposed to do. Read the documentation yourself – it’s an employer’s lawyer’s dream.
Well, maybe they didn’t preserve his dignity when they fired him. I don’t know about that – they tried to fire him privately, and they offered him severance (even though he’d been there for less than a year). He apparently refused the severance, and did so in a very hostile and threatening way. Then he refused to leave the station. At that point, they had to call the cops to get him out of there.
Well, then they should have beefed up security at the station after he left. Maybe, but remember that the shootings took place off site, and two and a half years after the termination. In the meantime, Mr. Flanagan was living in a nearby apartment, allegedly killing his own pet cats in the woods, fuming over the church murders in Charleston, South Carolina, apparently obsessing over the alleged injustices at WDBJ, and planning these killings. Seriously, who could have imagined such a thing?
The only thing I’ve heard that has given me the least pause is an allegation that on the day Mr. Flanagan was terminated, victim Adam Ward videotaped him as the police escorted him out of the building. Allegedly, Mr. Flanagan noticed the videotaping, and told Mr. Ward that he needed to “lose [his] big gut” and gave him the finger as he walked out. I don’t have enough information, and so I won’t speculate as to whether the videotaping was necessary or whether it might have had something to do with why Mr. Ward, at least, was targeted for murder. And, of course, Mr. Flanagan famously tweeted before he committed suicide that Mr. Ward had reported him once to Human Resources.
All I’ve seen about the alleged “racist” remarks by Alison Parker was that she said she was going to “swing by” somewhere (a very common, non-racial expression) and made a reference to “in the field” (a very common business expression for “off-site”).
A horrible, horrible tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims’ families (and with Mr. Flanagan’s family), and with their friends and loved ones.
WORKPLACE VIOLENCE PREVENTION TIPS
The following tips would not have made a difference in the Moneta shootings, but here are a few things that employers can do to help lessen the risk of workplace violence:
1. Adopt a workplace violence policy, and make it clear that it applies not only to on-duty conduct but also to off-duty conduct that could have an impact in the workplace.
2. Pay attention to employees who may be victims of domestic violence, and give them your support. Yes, in one respect, domestic violence is a “private matter,” but spousal abuse can also spill over into the workplace, endangering not only the battered spouse or partner, but also co-workers and customers.
3. Be as aggressive as you can legally be in performing criminal background checks on new hires. If you can help it, don’t let an individual start work until after you’ve received the results. If an applicant has a violent crime in his background, make him explain it. At the very least, you need to know how old the conviction is, what the individual’s record has been since the conviction, and the circumstances.
4. If a current employee is charged with a violent crime, give serious consideration to suspending the employee pending the outcome of the plea or trial.
5. Be serious about security at your workplaces. Make sure your in-house security teams are equipped to handle threatening or violent incidents. Don’t let employees swipe each other into the building, and especially don’t let them swipe in non-employees. If you share space with others, you may want to team up with your fellow tenants and talk with your landlord about whether the security measures are adequate.
6. Listen to that “little man” in your gut. If an applicant or employee gives you or other employees an uneasy feeling, pay attention. You may not be able to take action based on a gut reaction, but your “little man” may help you notice (and act upon) objective warning signs more quickly.
Robin Shea is a Partner with the law firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP and has more than 20 years’ experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act), the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, the Equal Pay Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act; and class and collective actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act and state wage-hour laws; defense of audits by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs; and labor relations. She conducts training for human resources professionals, management, and employees on a wide variety of topics.