In May, 2012 Safeway meat counter employee, Ryan Young, stopped a man from assaulting a pregnant store customer. No one else came to the woman’s aid. After an investigation, police gave Mr. Young a letter commending him for his actions.

Yet Safeway suspended Ryan from his job without pay pending discharge. Workplace violence policies aim to avoid possible injury to employees when they render aid, and dissuade any employee from hurting another person. Lawyers for employers worry if a good guy injures a bad guy while rendering aid, the employer may be forced by law to pay out huge sums of money to the bad guy.

Good Samaritan

Good Samaritan laws provide legal protection to people who “give reasonable assistance to those who are injured, ill, in peril, or otherwise incapacitated.” Good Samaritan laws have a common thread: Responders may only provide “reasonable” aid based upon training and capabilities. The legal and ethical grey area is, what is reasonable?  

If an employee had prior military training, how Rambo can they go on a bad guy? Plaintiff lawyers love the uncertainty of these questions that opens the door to lawsuits.

Employer’s dilemma

An employer can develop policy that prohibits employees from physical intervention during acts of violence, unless trained and authorized to act.

Policy, though, cannot control adrenaline. In the critical first seconds where life appears in danger, a person’s body and mind will cause them to spontaneously react to help or stay out of harm’s way.

The employer’s dilemma is enforcement. Do they really want to punish a hero? But without enforcement there is no policy. The employer’s dilemma is doubled when people, like Ryan from Safeway, go public. It creates a PR nightmare.

Personal protection

Another dilemma: how physical can an employee get if attacked? If an employee improvises a weapon, scissors or whatever, to fight off an attacker, at what point is a reasonable response exceeded? 

A concealed handgun at work by employees most often will violate employer policy. But is a pocket-knife OK? How about pepper-spray or tear-gas? Lots of things used for personal protection may be considered a weapon.

An electronic control device, aka stun-gun or Taser®, provides an electric shock to incapacitate a bad guy. If properly used, an ECD is non-lethal and very rarely will cause permanent harm.

Solve the dilemma

Every workplace should have a workplace violence prevention and response policy. Policy at a minimum should address:

  • Good Samaritan law.
  • State or local “stand your ground laws.”
  • Limits to concealed personal protection devices, e.g. handgun, knife, tear-gas, and stun-gun.
  • Limits in response to violence.

In short, if you’re a good guy who intervenes during an act of violence, you can’t get too physical. You must limit your response to a “reasonable” action.