What Is Workplace Violence?

Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening behavior that occurs at or outside the workplace. This can include off-site work-related events, meetings, or conferences. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), roughly 2 million American workers are victims of workplace violence each year.

Workplace violence can include a wide range of behaviors, from verbal abuse and bullying to physical assaults and homicide. Workplace violence can be committed by employees, customers, clients or visitors, and can have serious consequences for the safety and well-being of employees and the organization as a whole. Employers are responsible to take proactive measures to prevent workplace violence and respond quickly and effectively if an incident occurs.

Why Is It Important to Address Workplace Violence?

It’s important to address workplace violence because it can have serious consequences for the safety and well-being of employees and the organization as a whole. These consequences can include:

  • Lack of safety. Workplace violence can cause physical harm and injury to employees, visitors or customers. Addressing workplace violence helps ensure the safety and well-being of everyone at the workplace.
  • Mental health. Exposure to violence can lead to mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Addressing workplace violence can help prevent mental health issues from occurring or becoming worse.
  • Legal compliance. Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe and secure workplace under occupational health and safety laws. Addressing workplace violence helps employers meet these obligations and avoid potential legal consequences.
  • Reputation. A workplace that is known for violence and unsafe conditions can damage the organization’s reputation and impact customer confidence and trust. Addressing workplace violence helps maintain a positive reputation.
  • Employee retention. Employees are more likely to stay with an organization that prioritizes their safety and well-being. Addressing workplace violence can improve employee morale and retention rates.

Types of Workplace Violence

Workplace violence can take many forms and may not fit neatly into these categories. However, the most common types of workplace violence include:

Criminal Intent

This type of workplace violence occurs when an individual commits a violent act as part of criminal activity, such as robbery or shoplifting. The perpetrator typically has no relationship with the workplace or its employees and the violence is a means to an end. For example, a convenience store employee might be assaulted during a robbery.

Worker-on-Worker

This type of workplace violence is committed by a current or former employee of the organization, and can take many forms, including physical assault, verbal abuse or bullying. This type of violence can result from a variety of factors, such as a conflict between co-workers or a personal vendetta against a particular individual.

Personal Relationship

This is workplace violence that stems from personal relationships, such as domestic violence, stalking or harassment that spills over into the workplace. For example, an individual may experience violence from a partner or ex-partner who comes to their workplace to confront them.

Customer/Client

This type of workplace violence is committed by customers or clients of an organization. This can include physical assault, verbal abuse or harassment, and can occur in a wide range of industries. For example, a customer may become violent towards a retail employee after being dissatisfied with a product or service.

Ideological

Violence committed by individuals or groups with an ideological or political agenda, such as terrorism or hate crimes, is considered ideological violence. This type of violence is often premeditated and may target specific individuals or groups. For example, a mass shooting in a workplace may be motivated by the perpetrator’s extremist beliefs.

Workplace Violence Risk Factors

Factors that increase the risk of workplace violence have some base commonalities: stress, frustration, high tension, desperation, opportunity and vulnerability. Some of these situations are:

Working With the Public or in High-Stress Environments

Employees who work in high-stress environments, such as emergency rooms, law enforcement or customer service, may experience frustration and aggression from customers or clients who are also experiencing stress. For example, a customer may become aggressive towards a cashier who cannot process their payment quickly enough, or a patient in a hospital emergency room may become frustrated with long wait times and take their frustration out on hospital staff.

Handling Money and/or Valuables

Employees who handle money or valuable items, such as bank tellers or jewelry store employees, may become targets for robbery or theft. These situations can quickly turn violent if the perpetrator becomes aggressive or threatens the employee.

Working in Isolated/Remote Locations

Employees working in isolated or remote areas, such as forest rangers or oil rig workers, may be at a higher risk of violence because they are vulnerable and may have limited access to help or support. For example, a forest ranger may encounter an individual who is illegally hunting in a remote area and become the target of violence.

Dealing With Clients or Patients With a History of Instability

Employees who work with clients or patients with a history of instability may be at a higher risk of workplace violence. For example, a mental health professional may work with a patient who has a history of violent behavior and may become physically aggressive towards the professional during a session.

Experiencing Financial Difficulties/Job Loss

Individuals who are experiencing financial difficulties or job loss may become desperate and aggressive, leading to violent behavior towards their current or former employer or colleagues. For example, a recently laid-off employee may become aggressive towards their former boss or colleagues, or an individual who is struggling financially may attempt to rob a business where they used to work.

How to Create a Workplace Violence Prevention Plan

A workplace violence prevention plan is a collection of strategies, partnerships, policies and specificities to work towards a violence-free workplace. To build one from the ground up takes intentional research and consideration, but it doesn’t have to be an arduous process. Here’s a simple breakdown of how to create a plan for your workplace.

Step 1: Research

Prior to building your strategies, you need a solid understanding of the foundation. Consider the specific needs and risks of your work environment. Research workplace violence factors most common to your industry, number of employees, physical layout of location(s), time constraints and resource availability. From there, you can prioritize strategies that have been shown to be effective in similar circumstances.

Step 2: Select Strategies

Now that you have a solid understanding of all relevant data, you can determine what strategies are practical and feasible. See “Strategies to Prevent Workplace Violence” below for a general understanding of what strategies might best fit your organization’s needs. At this point, it would be wise to involve a board in the decision making process and open the door for employee input and support.

Step 3: Create Policies and Procedures

Workplace violence policies and procedures need to be clear, concise and accessible. This includes ensuring that employees know how to identify and report incidents and what steps to take in the event of an emergency. Some example of common workplace violence policies and procedures include:

  • Zero-tolerance policy. This policy states that violence in any form will not be tolerated in the workplace and outlines the consequences of violating the policy.
  • Threat assessment and response protocol. This protocol outlines the steps to be taken when a threat of violence is received, including how to assess the threat, notify appropriate personnel and respond to the threat.
  • Employee assistance program (EAP). An EAP provides employees with access to counseling and support services to help them deal with personal issues that may contribute to workplace violence.
  • Reporting and investigation procedure. This procedure outlines how to report incidents of workplace violence, how incidents will be investigated, and how employees will be protected from retaliation.

Step 4: Pave the Way

Do any prep work involved in implementing strategies, policies and procedures prior to introducing the plan to your employees. For example, if you decide to partner with local law enforcement, establish that relationship prior to the next step.

Step 5: Communicate, Implement and Update

To implement a workplace violence prevention plan, employers need to provide training and clear communication to employees about the policies and procedures in place.

This includes identifying warning signs and reporting procedures, as well as providing de-escalation and conflict resolution training. Employers should regularly review and update their policies and procedures based on feedback and changes in the work environment.

Additionally, it is important to establish a culture of safety and respect in the workplace where employees feel comfortable reporting any concerns or incidents of violence.

Strategies to Prevent Workplace Violence

There are several preventative measures and strategies an organization can put into practice to reduce the risk of workplace violence. Keep in mind that all of these strategies are good in theory, but none are effective unless properly and intentionally implemented with clear communication and action steps. Some of the best violence prevention plans have a handful of strategies that are actively practiced rather than many strategies that get lost in the shuffle.

Training and Education

Employers can provide employee training to help them recognize and respond to workplace violence. For example, employees can be trained on de-escalation techniques to prevent situations from turning violent.

Action step: Schedule a training session for employees on workplace violence prevention and de-escalation techniques.

Workplace Design

This strategy involves adjusting and improving the physical workplace to include security measures. These could include security cameras, panic alarms and limited access to certain areas of the workplace.

Action step: Conduct a security assessment of the workplace to identify potential vulnerabilities and take steps to address them.

Employee Support

Employers can provide resources and support to employees who may be at risk of experiencing workplace violence, such as an employee assistance program or counseling services.

Action step: Set a meeting or send out an email to communicate the availability of employee support resources and encourage employees to seek help if needed.

Collaboration

Employers can collaborate with local law enforcement and community organizations to address and prevent workplace violence.

Action step: Place a call to local law enforcement and/or community organizations and schedule a meeting to discuss potential collaboration efforts.

Screening

As part of the hiring process and regular employee reviews, conduct screening such as behavior assessments, reference checks and background checks.

Action step: Review the hiring process to ensure background checks and reference checks are consistently conducted for all new employees.

How to Respond to Incidents of Workplace Violence

No one is immune to workplace violence, so it is crucial to have a plan in place for how to handle such incidences. Here’s a simple breakdown of what steps to take.

Step 1: Ensure Immediate Safety and Response

  • Prioritize the safety of employees and implement emergency protocols. Focus on securing the safety of everyone involved by following established emergency procedures and protocols. This looks like taking steps to secure the area and remove individuals from immediate danger. Take necessary steps to isolate the affected area and remove individuals from harm’s way.
  • Contact local authorities and emergency services as needed. Notify the appropriate authorities, such as the police or emergency medical services, to ensure a prompt response.

Step 2: Provide Medical Assistance and Support

  • Attend to any injured individuals and provide necessary medical attention. Address the immediate medical needs of those who have been injured and ensure they receive appropriate care.
  • Offer support and resources to affected employees, such as counseling services or employee assistance programs. Once the immediate threat has been nullified and medical attention provided, follow up with the victim in the following days/weeks. Provide access to support services to help employees cope with the emotional and psychological impact of the incident.

Step 3: Document the Incident

  • Document the details of the incident. Include the time, location, individuals involved and nature of the violence. Maintain a thorough record of the incident to accurately capture the relevant information for future reference. Check out this sample violence incident report form from OSHA for a good picture of what needs to be included.
  • Collect evidence. Evidence could be things such as photographs or witness statements to support future actions or investigations. Gather any available evidence that can help you understand the incident and support potential legal or disciplinary actions.
  • Maintain confidentiality and handle sensitive information appropriately. Handle all collected information with utmost confidentiality and ensure compliance with relevant privacy laws (see Privacy Act 5 USC 552a and 42 CFR Part 2).

Step 4: Conduct a Thorough Investigation

  • Assign a trained team or individual. Designate competent personnel to carry out a comprehensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding the incident. According to the Department of Labor (DOL), this responsibility ultimately falls to managers, supervisors, the business security office and federal protective services (if your business operates within or adjacent to a federal facility).
  • Interview witnesses, involved parties and any other relevant individuals to gather information. Gather statements and accounts from those involved or present during the incident to gather a complete understanding of what transpired.
  • Review security footage if available to understand the sequence of events. Utilize any available surveillance footage to piece together a clear timeline of the incident.
  • Identify any contributing factors or underlying issues that may have led to the incident. Utilize information gathered through the investigation to seek out any underlying issues that may have contributed to the incident. In addition to information gathered In the investigation, use surveys, polls, and interviews to seek out relevant pre-existing problems.

Step 5: Manage the Aftermath and Focus on Prevention

  • Implement necessary measures to address the immediate aftermath of the incident. These measures may include heightened security or temporary changes to work arrangements.
  • Based on the investigation findings, develop strategies and policies to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. Use the insights from the investigation to develop comprehensive strategies and policies aimed at preventing future incidents of workplace violence.
  • Conduct training sessions to better equip employees. Offer training to employees on conflict resolution, threat recognition and response protocols to provide them with the necessary skills and knowledge to recognize and address potential threats and conflicts.
  • Address company culture. Foster a culture of open communication where employees feel comfortable reporting concerns and managers respond promptly. Encourage open communication channels throughout the organization for reporting concerns or incidents.
  • Regularly review and update workplace violence prevention policies and procedures. Continuously evaluate and enhance existing policies and procedures to adapt to changing circumstances and emerging best practices.