Terminating an employee is often a challenging and emotional process, and terminated employees may react with shock, sadness, frustration, or even aggression. But what can an employer do if a former employee takes it a step further and starts harassing—even threatening to harm—his or her former coworkers? How can the company respond to these threats, and what can it do to protect its employees? Depending on the nature, severity, and frequency of the threats, the company may be entitled to a court order prohibiting the former employee from contacting or harassing his former coworkers.
Most states have laws that allow a person who is the victim of harassment to obtain an order prohibiting further harassment. While such orders are typically sought by individual victims of harassment, some states allow companies to obtain these orders. For example, Minnesota courts have clarified that a company may be considered a “person” for purposes of obtaining a harassment restraining order. Other states, including Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Tennessee, have enacted statutes that expressly allow companies to obtain similar types of restraining orders.
Whether a court will grant a harassment restraining order will depend on whether the conduct meets the definition of “harassment” under state law. Under Minnesota law, for example, “harassment” includes, among other acts, “repeated incidents of intrusive or unwanted acts, words, or gestures that have a substantial adverse effect or are intended to have a substantial adverse effect on the safety, security, or privacy of another.” A single incident of harassment or statements that are simply inappropriate or argumentative are typically not enough to be considered harassment. However, threats of physical violence, repeated text messages, e-mails, or phone calls, or multiple incidents of threatening gestures or statements may constitute harassment.
What if the former employee is not threatening to harm employees, but instead is threatening to harm the company’s business interests and reputation? A harassment restraining order is likely not available to prevent or stop threats by a former employee to contact customers, divulge confidential information, or take other actions that could harm the company’s business and reputation. The company may be entitled to different relief, including temporary or injunctive relief in state or federal courts.
Contact one of Foley & Mansfield’s experienced attorneys for guidance in obtaining the appropriate type of relief in response to threats by former employees.