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Ask an HR Expert: Physical Violence by an Employee

Should physical violence by an employee in the workplace result in immediate termination?

A yellow caution tape with a hand and a speech bubble.

Workplace violence ​most likely should result in termination. Physical violence among employees in the workplace should never be tolerated.

But never say never to suspending rather than terminating a worker, as surprising information might emerge that impacts the resulting discipline. For example, someone involved in a violent incident at work may have acted in self-defense after being attacked.

Rather than immediately terminating an individual, you may choose to suspend him or her, pending an investigation. This safeguards other workers while allowing you to investigate the circumstances and consider appropriate consequences. Other disciplinary actions less severe than termination include a final warning or a referral to an employee assistance program.

Whatever the consequences, an organization in all cases should implement or increase security measures. This could be as simple as having a trained supervisor monitor a person’s behavior and report any red flags.

Employee safety is always a priority. An employer with knowledge of physical violence at work has a duty of care under the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s (OSH Act’s) general duty clause to ensure the safety of workers and to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards.” Inaction in response to a violent incident can result in an OSH Act violation and, worse, potential future acts of violence. People may perceive an organization’s failure to act as a lack of concern about employee safety. If that happens, the organizational climate will suffer.

Many senior executives cite workplace violence as a top concern, and most companies have policies in place forbidding any act or threat of violence in the workplace. These are often referred to as “zero-tolerance” policies.

All employer policies on conduct or violence in the workplace should clearly communicate standards and expectations of employee behavior. Ultimately, disciplinary action should be appropriate to the offense. Often, that rises to the level of immediate termination.

Theresa Adams, SHRM-SCP, an HR Knowledge Advisor for SHRM.


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