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Walking a razor-thin liability line


The shocking on-air shooting deaths of a television reporter and cameraman raises some disturbing, and perhaps ultimately unanswerable, questions for all employers.

Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, were shot by Vester Flanagan, 41, a former employee of the CBS-affiliate TV station WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia. He later shot and killed himself as police pursued him.

At the time of his termination three years previously, police escorted Mr. Flanagan from the building. But apparently there was no subsequent contact with the station or its personnel, and certainly no indication of the horrific acts he planned and implemented.

Given the situation, a sense of helplessness by employers is understandable in considering this particular episode. No organization can effectively control someone who has left their employ.

But that still leaves the issue of what to do about apparently troubled workers who remain at the firm's employ, and how businesses can balance the Americans with Disabilities Act's rule against not discriminating against workers with psychiatric issues and still keep everyone in the workplace safe.

Terminating an employee who gives his colleagues an uneasy feeling is not enough. Experts' advice is to observe and document. Troubled employees often give clues as to what they are planning, either verbally or through physical gestures, such as moving a finger across the throat, experts say.

This should help firms establish cases in which an employee loses ADA protection under the carve-out that applies to workers who pose a threat to themselves or others.

Employers also should establish a clear policy as to conduct that will not be tolerated in the workplace and apply it equally to all employees, which should help prevent their actions coming under scrutiny from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Unfortunately, there is no clearly defined guide employers can use to determine when the ADA is no longer applicable and others' safety becomes the only issue.

The prevailing issue, though, is workplace safety. And that requires — as it does in so many other instances — clear, unbiased and sound judgment on employers' part.