Violence in the workplace is no laughing matter.
Apparently, officials in the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas didn’t get the memo from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that defines workplace violence as violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault, directed toward people at work or on duty.
It took a battery conviction to compel the Unified Government to take seriously a troubling incident that the guilty employee deemed “funny.” Only after a jury convicted the longtime supervisor of misdemeanor battery against a female employee did he tender his resignation.
At that point, Unified Government officials shifted into damage control mode, saying that he would have been fired if he hadn’t resigned. But an internal investigation launched last year into the actions of General Services Director Dennis Laughlin resulted in little more than a slap on the wrist.
And until the case — and the guilty verdict — began to generate headlines, the Unified Government showed no inclination to do the right thing.
Laughlin was charged in June 2018 with misdemeanor battery. He was accused of pushing a female colleague against a wall. Even though there were witnesses who saw the incident, he somehow kept his job.
This week, a Wyandotte County jury found Laughlin guilty of misdemeanor battery. He could spend up to six months in jail and be assessed a $1,000 fine. Sentencing is set for August.
The same female employee documented repeated instances of abuse and harassment from Laughlin over a two-year period, but nothing was done.
Laughlin testified in court about the incident, according to KCUR. “At the time, it struck me as funny,” he said.
Mike Taylor, a spokesman for the Unified Government, initially said in a statement Tuesday that officials were surprised by the guilty verdict. Taylor told KCUR that Laughlin “was well-liked in the organization, so I think there’s some surprise and disappointment that an incident like this happened, and that it came to the end that it did.”
But the next day, Taylor and Unified Government officials suddenly were singing a different tune.
“The Unified Government thoroughly invested the incident when it was reported,” Taylor wrote in a statement to The Star. “That investigation came to a different conclusion than the jury. But a jury has spoken following a trial.
“Mr. Laughlin tendered his resignation late Tuesday afternoon following the jury finding him guilty. It is effective immediately. He is no longer a UG employee. Had he not resigned, he would have been terminated.”
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, workplace violence overwhelmingly targets women.
Unified Government employees are required to take training on workplace violence and sexual harassment. The classes for new hires must be repeated every three years.
Obviously, the training — and the Unified Government’s response to battery against an employee — fell short in this case.
Steps should be taken to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated in the future. The Unified Government should start by enacting a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence that helps ensure all employees feel safe on the job.