As managers, we spend so much energy focused on what we are doing that we overlook the consequences of what we’re not doing. Unfortunately, those consequences can be serious. Suppose you send an untrained employee to make a minor repair and he electrocutes himself. Or an employee threatens a co-worker, but you decide you’ll deal with it when you have time. How will you explain yourself if the employee makes good on her threat before you found the time to deal with it?
These situations are examples of negligent supervision: the failure to meet accepted standards of care, resulting in harm to employees or the public. The law recognizes that supervision is serious business—lives may be at stake. Consequently, you and your firm can be held liable for damage that occurs because of negligent supervision. If you are held liable, the penalties can be substantial, but they’re nothing compared to living with the knowledge that you could have prevented a tragedy.
Understand the risks. Be vigilant, and take action:
• Understand your exposure. It’s an exaggeration to say that anything you do (or don’t do) might be seen as negligent, but several situations demand particular care:
• Permitting an employee to use a company vehicle
• Permitting an employee to be alone with other employees or members of the public
• Promoting an employee
• Certifying an employee
• Failing to fire or discipline an employee
• Firing an employee without doing an effective investigation.
• Don’t make any assumptions about employees. Just as you shouldn’t accept at face value the accuracy of a resume, don’t make assumptions after the hire. Employees may volunteer for additional responsibilities out of boredom, a wish to please, or to earn a higher wage. It doesn’t mean they can actually do the work. Investigate their claims.
• Don’t ignore or minimize problems, actions, statements, or signs that an employee is a potential danger to himself or others. After the tragic shootings at Columbine High School, the media was filled with evidence of the boys’ troubling behavior. The nation wondered, why didn’t anyone notice? Why didn’t anyone do something?
If something seems amiss, it may be amiss. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
• Investigate, inquire, and consult with experts—including the police. Respect employees’ privacy rights, but don’t ignore potential problems.
• Request training on workplace violence. Learn the warning signs and how to respond.
Real Life Example
Mona was in a no-win situation. A co-worker was stalking an employee. The employee was understandably terrified, and the stalker was unresponsive to discipline and even to a restraining order. Mona believed that she needed to fire the stalker and reassign his victim, but the stalker was a diagnosed schizophrenic and therefore protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Mona knew that if she fired him, she could expose the company to a wrongful termination suit.
Despite that risk, Mona fired him (and also reassigned the employee). “I was at risk either way,” Mona said. “But I decided that I’d rather go to court than to a funeral.”