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When should you rat out a co-worker?

Sometimes no one saw it coming. Other times they did.

In hindsight, after all-too-often instances of workplace violence, co-workers describe the perpetrators as angry, as loners, as bullies, as misfits. Rarely was the “snap” point predicted. But sometimes it was presaged.

And that raises questions for all of us in the workplace: Should we “tattle” if we just think someone might do something awful? How bad should hate speech be before we report it? And to whom? And what if we refrain because we don’t think anything will change?

After the shootings in Orlando, a former co-worker of the shooter said he’d reported his concerns to management but that nothing was done. Tragedies and follow-up like that have prompted calls for guidance in workplaces around the country.

“We were amazed at the number of calls from employers asking what they should do if they think they have an employee who might be a potential terrorist,” said Jim Holland, an employment law attorney in Kansas City, Mo. “They’re worried that if they say something, they could be accused of discrimination.”

Clearly, Holland said, management and co-workers should be hyper-vigilant if fellow employees are spewing hate speech or saying things like “good for the shooter.” Also clearly, they should pay close attention if they know an employee is afflicted by domestic violence or threats.

In the former case, Holland said, employers have the duty to call in the “hater” and say such talk isn’t acceptable, then take disciplinary steps, up to dismissal. In the latter case, employers should call in the threatened employee, ask what kind of protection might be needed and then follow through.

A Kansas jury last year awarded $3.2 million to a woman who survived a domestic-related shooting in her workplace parking lot. The reasoning was that the company didn’t go far enough to provide good security once it knew about threats to the woman.

“An employer’s prime obligation to employees is to prevent harm from happening,” Holland said, recognizing that it’s impossible to forecast every outcome. Any employer who has experienced workplace violence says in hindsight that “maybe they could have done something about it” by taking strong steps, even if it cost more money, he said.

Every workplace should have policies requiring professional, courteous treatment, as well as complaint procedures for employees who feel endangered. It’s likely a step too far to do as an aviation insurance company owner in Georgia did earlier this year when he required his employees to carry firearms at the office.

But every employer and employee should feel confident enough to report rants or threats that indicate violence. It’s not an attack on free speech or discrimination to ask that worrisome behavior be investigated.

“Notify the police, the FBI or Homeland Security,” Holland said. “You don’t need to wait for a pattern and practice to investigate serious threats.”

Diane Stafford is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. stafford@kcstar.com, 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford,kansascity.com/workplace

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