The Biggest Workplace Bully: Gun Violence

Some guy walks into a movie theater and shoots 71 people …

It sounds like a joke waiting for a punch line. But the joke is America’s lack of credible gun control and the inane theory advanced by America’s gun lobby that the U.S. Constitution guarantees any American the right to own an AR-15 assault rifle.  The reality is that gun violence in the workplace traumatizes not only the direct victims but also bystanders, police and paramedics, and the workers who witness it.

James Holmes, a 24-year-old graduate student armed with an AR-15 assault rifle, burst into a Colorado movie theater’s screening of The Dark Knight Rises, set off tear gas canisters and opened fire – killing 12 people and wounding 58 others. He also had a Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun and a 40-caliber Glock handgun.

Police arrested him near his parked car in the back of the movie theater. Another 40-caliber Glock handgun was found in the vehicle, and more than a thousand rounds of ammo. In recent days, Holmes had purchased 6,000 rounds of ammo over the internet.

Holmes, a floundering graduate student, was wearing a ballistic helmet, a gas mask, a throat protector, a tactical ballistic vest, a groin protector and ballistic leggings. Holmes had colored his hair red and told federal authorities he was the psychotic Batman villain “the Joker.”

He surrendered without incident.

There was no shortage of tears on Friday, including police officials traumatized by the massacre and movie theater employees  reeling from a workplace that had become a bloody battleground.

The dead included a six year old girl named Veronica.

See No Evil at Penn State

Coach Joe Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier were fired, effective immediately, on Nov. 9, 2011 by the PSU Board of Trustees. The troubling culture at Penn State was in evidence when students sympathetic to Paterno erupted into violence at the news until they were subdued by police with tear gas. Meanwhile, more victims of alleged pedophile Jerry Sandusky surfaced. PGB

SEE NO EVIL …

In light of the horrifying and unfathomable nature of the pedophile scandal at Penn State University, it is easy to forget that Penn State is a workplace.

The leader sets an important tone for a workplace in terms of signalling what behaviors will and will not be tolerated.  Which raises a question.  What did Penn State President Graham Spanier know of the incident in 2002 in which Jerry Sandusky, a retired long-time football coach at Penn State, allegedly showered and engaged in sexual conduct with a young boy at Penn State’s  football building?

According to a grand jury report, Spanier said he was told that a staff member had reported that Sandusky was “horsing around” with a young boy in the shower in a way that made the staff member “uncomfortable.”  However, Spanier says that he did not  know that Sandusky was engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior with the boy.

Wasn’t it enough that Sandusky was engaging in horseplay with a young boy in the shower area?  That a staffer was made to feel “uncomfortable” witnessing the behavior?  Did Spanier have an obligation to inquire further?

Spanier obviously felt that something improper had occurred. In response to the incident, Spanier said he approved of a plan to take Sandusky’s locker room keys away and to inform him that he could not use Penn State’s athletic facilities with young people, an order that officials later agreed was unenforceable.  Was there any protocol at Penn State for investigating and disciplining alleged misconduct on campus?  Sandusky was still a professor emeritus at Penn State, and had an office there.

Sandusky is the founder of The Second Mile, a charity dedicated to helping impoverished youth who have absent or dysfunctional families. Sandusky allegedly abused at least eight boys through his contact with the club, which hosts sporting camps and events at Penn State.

According to a grand jury investigation, in addition to Spanier, the following adults were allegedly aware of the 2002 incident:

  • A 28-year old Penn State Graduate Assistant who said he saw Sandusky nude in the shower and thought Sandusky was having sex with a boy. (He reported the incident to Paterno.)
  •  The graduate assistant’s father.
  • Penn State Coach Joseph V. Paterno (who reported the incident to his bosses).
  • Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley.
  • Penn State Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz.
  • Dr. Jack Rayovich, executive director of the Second Mile Club.

None of these people, including Spanier, reported Sandusky’s conduct to the police or to child protective services.

Incredibly, this was not the first time that Penn State officials had notice that Sandusky was engaging in questionable behavior with children in a shower on the campus.

Schultz told the grand jury that he knew that Sandusky was investigated by child protective services in 1998 for allegedly showering with young boys and behaving in a sexually inappropriate manner. According to the grand jury report:  “Schultz testified that the 1998 incident was reviewed by the University Police and ‘the child protection agency’ with the blessing of then-University counsel Wendell Courtney (who)  was then and remains counsel for The Second Mile.”

Spanier, who was appointed president in 1995, denied knowing of the 1998 University Police investigation of Sandusky.

There was yet another incident at Penn State in 2000 in which a janitor allegedly saw Sandusky having sex with another boy, this one aged 11 or 12.  The janitor  told his co-workers, who expressed fear they could lose their jobs, and then he told his immediate supervisor Jim Witherite. No one called the police that time either.

State police commissioner Frank Noonan was quoted Monday as stating:  “Somebody has to question about what I would consider the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child, … Whether you’re a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building. I think you have a moral responsibility to call us.”

Both Schultz and Curley have been arrested for allegedly lying to the grand jury and failing to report the alleged 2002 sexual assault to authorities as required by law.

Spanier may avoid arrest but it remains to be seen whether he can avoid responsibility for the tsunami wave of bad publicity that has washed over Penn State’s campus because the highest ranking officials there saw no evil.

What about Walmart?

Note: Gillane was sentenced to 96 years in prison on 12/14/11.

A jury this week found John Gillane, 46, the Walmart employee who shot and wounded three of his supervisors last year, guilty of seven felony counts, including two counts of attempted murder with a deadly weapon.

But what about Walmart? Does this incident say anything about the employment practices of America’s largest retail chain? Or was it just a fluke involving an unstable employee?

A nine-year Wal-Mart employee, Gillane told police that Walmart was opening a new store that was causing a cut-back in employee hours and his medical insurance costs had increased. He said he believed one of the supervisors he shot, Eric Hill, gave him a bad evaluation and thought it wasn’t fair because Hill didn’t know him well.

According to the Reno Gazette Journal, Gillane told police he was tired of being mistreated and wanted to “get even and embarrass Walmart.”

Interestingly, after the October 29, 2010 shooting, the victims reportedly said Gillane was well liked, had no work issues, and they were unaware that he disliked them.  The three have recovered from their physical injuries but testified they still feel pain and emotional distress from the incident.

In a taped interview with police, Gillane said he decided the night before that he was going to confront the managers. “Was I disgruntled? —- yeah, I was disgruntled. I was going to take on Goliath,” he said.

He went to Walmart at 7:15 a.m. with two guns and purchased a box of ammo. He hid in a bathroom stall and loaded a gun and waited.

Gillane said he went to the office of manager Richard Sanders, passing several employees whom he did not shoot. He said he displayed the gun and told  Sanders to call the other managers into Sander’s office. He planned to tell them to call  the corporate level at Walmart Stores Inc.  so he could “go over all this stuff, how they’re crapping on us. I knew I was going to get fired. Then everything went wrong.”

Gillane said he panicked when Sanders bolted.

Prosecutors portrayed Gillane as a ticking time bomb who was frustrated with life and intended to kill the supervisors and go out in a “blaze of glory.”

Clearly, Gillane’s problems were much larger than the superstore. He was broke, had recently been evicted, and was upset that two wives had left him for other women, and he rarely got to see his 5-year-old daughter. Gillane had threatened to commit suicide two weeks prior to the incident.

Gillane was also convicted of three counts of battery with a deadly weapon causing substantial bodily harm, assault with a deadly weapon and carrying a concealed weapon.  After deliberating more than seven hours, jurors failed to reach a decision on whether he intended to kill the first manager he shot, Sanders, whom he reportedly hated the most.

There is a long history in the United States of disgruntled employees taking up arms and shooting supervisors and co-workers.  A series of shootings by postal employees in the 1980s led to the term, “Going postal.”

In a 2000 report, a commission empaneled to investigate violence at the post office recommended that  USPS management, unions, and management associations overhaul the dispute resolution processes, which was a significant source of frustration and tension for employees and managers, and boost pay for non-management personnel.

Wal-Mart employs about one percent of the U.S. population and earns profits of more than $15 billion a year. The New York Times has reported that starting in 2012 all future part-time Wal-Mart employees who work less than 24 hours a week on average will no longer qualify for health insurance plans, and Wal-Mart is cutting its contributions to employees’ health savings accounts by 50 percent. Premiums for Wal-Mart employees are expected to increase from 17 to 61 percent.

A few years ago, Walmart expanded coverage for employees and their families after facing criticism that many of its 1.4 million U.S. workers could not afford or did not qualify for coverage — rendering  them eligible for Medicaid.

When is a threat … a threat?

August 4, 2011 – It is ever okay to issue a threat of any kind in the workplace?

Suppose a worker says he’s going to “fight” for his rights?

A case in Missouri demonstrates complexities of this issue.  What is a threat? Do intent and the context in which the threat is made matter?   Yes, say the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, Washington, DC.

Here’s the background:

Management at Kiewit Power Construction Co. voluntarily permitted electricians to take 15-minute breaks in the morning and afternoon. As the electricians began working farther away from the trailer containing the break room, they left the worksite earlier and the breaks were taking longer. The company, worried about lost productivity, said the electricians could no longer go to the break room, and provided a table and chairs so they could break where they were working.  The union objected and electricians resisted. The company began issuing warnings.

When a supervisor approached a group of electricians and said he was going to write them up, two electricians mouthed off.

One told the  supervisor he had “been out of work for a year,” and that if he got “laid off it’s going to get ugly.” He also said the supervisor “ better bring [his] boxing gloves.”

 The second electrician told the supervisor he had recently been out of work for eight months and repeated the other electrician’s comment that “it’s going to get ugly.”

Both were fired, and their union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, declined to pursue a grievance..

After an Administrative Law Judge upheld the dismissals, one of the electricians appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, which reinstated both workers, finding that in context their statements were not physical threats but merely figures of speech made in the course of a protected labor dispute. Kiewit Power appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.

In a split 2-1 decision,  the appeals court on 8/3/11 sided with the NLRB and the electricians.

The majority agreed that a worker could be fired if he or she made a physical threat. They said the employee’s remarks were “intemperate” remarks rather than actual threats.  Also, the  Court reasoned the employer provoked the electricians by picking a public scene that was likely to lead to a quarrel, and that it was reasonable for the employees to respond “briefly, spontaneously, and verbally” to the disciplinary measure.  Importantly, they said,  the electricians did not demonstrate any physically threatening behaviors.

The majority said: “To state the obvious, no one thought that  the electricians were literally challenging their supervisor to a boxing match. Once we acknowledge that the employees were speaking in metaphor, the NLRB’s interpretation is not unreasonable. It is not at all uncommon to speak of verbal sparring, knock-down arguments, shots below the belt, taking the gloves off, or to use other pugilistic argot without meaning actual fisticuffs. What these words stand for, of course, is a matter of context.”

To illustrate a  real physical threat,  the majority compared a hockey player dropping gloves to battle another hockey play to Presidential candidate Sarah Palin promising “the gloves are coming off” in the 2008 election.

The majority said the employer’s “subjective perception of an employee’s statement” is not dispositive about what constitutes a threat,  and that it was appropriate for the NLRB to use an “objective standard” consistent with prior decisions.   Furthermore, the majority said it would defeat the ability of workers to unionize “if workers could be lawfully discharged every time they threatened to ‘fight’ for better working conditions.”

The dissent contended the electricians did threaten the management representative and that there was no reasoned basis for the majority’s overturning the original decision of the Administrative Law Judge. “Phrases like “workplace violence” and “going postal” manifest that today’s work setting is often far from calm, especially in precarious economic times … The  Board’s reinstatement—seconded by my colleagues—of employees who openly challenge by threatening language lawful decisions of their employer compels me to observe: ‘So much for industrial peace.’”

The bottom line is that the electricians got lucky!   Almost certainly, an employee who works for a non-union employer, even if provoked, would likely have faced a far different outcome.

 

Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge Out of Order?

Places Chokehold on Fellow Justice

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley has accused fellow Justice David Prosser of putting her in a chokehold during a dispute in her office on June 13, 2011,  a day before the Court’s decision upholding a bill to curtail the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Bradley said:  “The facts are that I was demanding that he get out of my office and he put his hands around my neck in anger in a chokehold.”

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the story is not the alleged assault but the fact that an incident pf workplace violence was shrouded in secrecy for almost two weeks, until  Wisconsin Public Radio and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism published a story based upon anonymous sources.  Why was it necessary for  anonymous sources to disclose that one of Wisconsin’s high court judges had allegedly assaulted a fellow justice?  Where is the transparency?

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism  on June 25, 2011 quoted “at least three knowledgeable sources” who declined to be named but said, “other sources have offered a conflicting account.  Justice Prosser has declared that the claims, once investigated, will be ‘proven false.’”

There are competing versions of the incident. The Journal also quoted   a source who said Prosser made incidental contact with Bradley’s neck as he put up his hands in a defensive posture as Bradley rushed toward him “with fists up.”

The Wisconsin Judicial Commission, which  is charged with investigating allegations of misconduct involving judges, was informed of the alleged assault. However, a spokesman for the Commission said he could neither confirm nor deny whether the commission, which was informed of the incident, will investigate.

Judge Prosser’s judicial temperament was called into question earlier this year:

 In March, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that, in a disagreement over a case last year, Justice Prosser, 68, had called Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a “total bitch” and threatened to “destroy” her. Prosser, the paper reported, confirmed making the remarks, saying he “probably overreacted” while accusing Justices Abrahamson and Bradley of being “masters at deliberately goading people into perhaps incautious statements.”