3 Things ‘The Office’ Taught Me About Employment Law (Part 2)
Summary: Using examples from the popular TV show The Office, this column discusses why workplace violence is an issue companies should take very seriously. (This article is the second in a three-part series; you can read the first article here.)
Question. Who is the most lethal character from The Office? Jim Halpert? False. That honor belongs to non other than Mr. Dwight K. Schrute. Assistant to the Regional Manager. Loyal Dunder Mufflin employee. A danger to practically everyone around him.
Fans of The Office know that Dwight took the personal safety of Dunder Mifflin Scranton employees seriously. He usually had a variety of weapons hidden on his person, in and around his desk, and strategically throughout the office in case of an unexpected attack. This was well-known to his co-workers and management. When asked about keeping weapons in the workplace, Dwight once explained:
People say, ‘oh it’s dangerous to keep weapons in the home, or the workplace.’ Well I say, it’s better to be hurt by someone you know, accidentally, than by a stranger, on purpose.
So, what can Dwight teach us about employment law?
Lesson No. 2: Workplace violence must be taken seriously.
In one episode, Dwight’s obsession with personal safety actually paid some dividends. One of the Dunder Mifflin warehouse workers, Roy Anderson (who was previously engaged to marry the branch’s secretary, Pam Beesly), comes into the office to confront salesman Jim Halpert after learning that Jim kissed Pam after an office party. As Roy charges Jim with fist raised, Dwight, whose desk was right beside Jim’s, sprayed Roy with pepper spray.
Roy was fired by the company, and everyone in the office considered Dwight the hero of the day. In a way, he was. He prevented physical violence in the workplace with non-lethal force.
Later in the episode, however, another Dunder Mifflin employee, Andy Bernard, returns to work following an extended leave of absence to take anger management classes. When Dwight sees him entering the office, what does he do? He of course pepper sprays him.
At that point, the office’s human resources officer, Toby Flenderson, wakes up and decides he should do something about Dwight’s cache of weapons. He rightly goes to Dwight and confiscates everything, including the pepper spray, a taser, a boomerang, handcuffs, a nightstick, a pair of brass knuckles, and a samurai sword.
In another later episode, Dwight is promoted to the Regional Manager position on an interim basis. Dwight of course lets the power go to his head and comes into the office one day wearing a cowboy-style six-shooter in an elaborate holster. He of course accidentally discharges the gun in the office when he tries to twirl it around his finger and into the holster like Wyatt Earp. Dwight was removed from the position of interim Regional Manager.
While Dwight’s shenanigans were hilarious on The Office, they highlight some very serious and important issues.
According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), of the 4,679 fatal workplace injuries that occurred in the United States in 2014, 403 were workplace homicides. Furthermore, OSHA reports that nearly two million American workers report having been victims of workplace violence each year. Those are sobering statistics.
Companies need written policies on workplace violence that are distributed to all employees. More importantly, I believe, companies need to train managers and supervisors on how to recognize and appropriately address suspected or actual incidents of workplace violence. This is especially important where jobs involving risk factors for workplace violence are concerned.
OSHA identifies the following as risk factors: jobs involving the exchange of money with the public; positions in which the employee works with volatile, unstable people; jobs in which the employee works alone or in isolated areas; positions in which alcohol is served; working late at night; and working in areas with high crime rates.
On The Office, Dunder Mifflin management turned a blind eye towards Dwight’s violent tendencies and his storage of weapons in the workplace. This was presumably because Dwight was such a goober and said things like this:
In an ideal world I would have all ten fingers on my left hand and the right one would just be left for punching.
When I die, I want to be frozen . . . I will wake up stronger than ever, because I will have used that time, to figure out exactly why I died. And what moves I could have used to defend myself better now that I know what hold he had me in.
While no one took Dwight seriously, everything got very real when Dwight mistakenly pepper-sprayed an innocent co-worker and discharged his gun in the workplace. In the real world, I sincerely hope that any company with an employee like Dwight would have taken action much earlier by explaining the company’s zero-tolerance workplace violence policy and by training Dwight’s supervisor to identify and act on any inappropriate behavior.
So take a lesson from Dwight K. Schrute: If not taken seriously, workplace violence can have some tragic consequences for everyone involved.
Earlier: 3 Things ‘The Office’ Taught Me About Employment Law (Part 1)
Evan Gibbs is an attorney at Troutman Sanders, where he primarily litigates employment cases and handles traditional labor matters. Connect with him on LinkedIn here, or e-mail him here. (The views expressed in this column are his own.)
Published at Mon, 12 Jun 2017 22:43:33 +0000
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