Understanding Workplace Violence Prevention and Response

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Introduction

The  topic of workplace violence tends to dominate the news in the days following a major incident, but not every instance of workplace violence generates national headlines. Each year, an average of nearly 2 million U.S. workers report having been a victim of violence at work, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of annual workplace homicides at about 400.

HR professionals find themselves in a unique position as both the leaders of workplace violence prevention and sometimes also the targets of employee rage. According to a 2019 SHRM research report, 19 percent of HR professionals are unsure or don't know what to do when they witness or are involved in a workplace violence incident and 55 percent don't know whether their organization has a workplace violence prevention program. While no prevention plan is an absolute protection against violence at work, understanding how to prepare for and react to violent conduct is imperative. See Survey: Half of HR Pros' Workplaces Experienced Violence and SHRM Workplace Violence Research Report.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines workplace violence as the act or threat of violence, ranging from verbal abuse to physical assaults, directed toward people at work or on duty. Workplace violence also may include acts that result in damage to an organization's resources or capabilities. Many employers consider workplace harassment and bullying to be forms of workplace violence. Also included in this context is domestic violence that spills over into the workplace in the form of assaults, threats or other actions by outside parties with whom employees have relationships and that occur at the workplace.

What can employers do to protect their workers from becoming victims of workplace violence? The ultimate goal is to deter disgruntled insiders or nefarious outsiders from violence by making your company a hard target. A secondary goal is to make sure your company and workforce are prepared for violence so you can minimize casualties and respond quickly in the event of a violent incident. If you can save a life—or many—the return on investment will be well worth it.

See:
Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary      
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Workplace Violence
NIOSH Occupational Violence


Compliance

The federal Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act includes a general duty clause requiring employers to "furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees." According to OHSA's Enforcement Procedures and Scheduling for Occupational Exposure to Workplace Violence, "employers may be found in violation of the General Duty Clause if they fail to reduce or eliminate serious recognized hazards. Under this Instruction, inspectors should therefore gather evidence to demonstrate whether an employer recognized, either individually or through its industry, the existence of a potential workplace violence hazard affecting his or her employees. Furthermore, investigations should focus on whether feasible means of preventing or minimizing such hazards were available to employers." While there is currently no federal OSHA standard specific to workplace violence, there is potential for such a standard in the future, particularly for the health care industry.

Many states have OSHA-approved plans that must be "at least as effective" as the federal OSH Act and that often have further employee protections. Several states require employers to implement workplace violence prevention programs. For example, in 2017, California health care employers became regulated by the Workplace Violence Prevention in Health Care rule requiring a written workplace violence prevention plan, employee training, state reporting and more.

Common-law principles must also be considered in understanding employer liability for workplace violence, including the following:

  • Premises liability is the duty of an employer to keep individuals on the premises safe from injury, including criminal and violent acts of others. Implementing security measures at worksites based on an assessment of potential violence specific to that site is recommended.
  • Respondent superior refers to the vicarious liability of an employer for the acts of its employees acting within the course and scope of their employment. This liability is typically very fact-specific and often hinges on whether an employer's actions, or failure to act, contributed to the violent act.
  • Negligence in hiring or retention of employees occurs when the employer knew or should have known the potential for violence. Conducting background screens upon hire as well as responding immediately and appropriately to threats of violence in the workplace can reduce this liability.
  • Discrimination and harassment claims may arise when workplace violence is motivated by a protected characteristic such as race or religion.


How To Prepare for Workplace Violence

Preparing for any type of workplace violence is key. Larger companies with robust security departments have the advantages of resources and trained personnel who manage the security effort. But for smaller companies with little or no security measures in place, the responsibility often falls on the general counsel or the head of human resources. See How to Prepare Your Workforce for Violent Incidents.

As the FBI's Critical Incident Response Group points out in Workplace Violence: Issues in Response, there is no one-size-fits-all plan that employers can download and implement. Every employer will need a plan that is tailored to its particular circumstances and that considers company culture, physical layout, resources, management styles and other factors.

The New York State Department of Labor provides the following examples of employment situations that may pose higher risks of workplace violence:

  • Duties that involve the exchange of money.
  • Delivery of passengers, goods or services.
  • Duties that involve mobile workplace assignments.
  • Working with unstable or volatile people in health care, social service or criminal justice settings.
  • Working alone or in small numbers.
  • Working late at night or during early morning hours.
  • Working in high-crime areas.
  • Duties that involve guarding valuable property or possessions.
  • Working in community-based settings.
  • Working in a location with uncontrolled public access to the workplace.

Certain industries are also considered high-risk for workplace violence, including health care, taxi and for-hire drivers, and late-night retail establishments (gas stations, liquor or convenience stores, etc.).

Identify the different types of workplace violence

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA, developed a model typology for workplace violence based on the perpetrator's relationship to the victim and/or place of employment that can be used by employers when assessing potential violence in the workplace. When conducting a worksite analysis or threat assessment, each type of perpetrator should be evaluated to determine the likelihood of a violent event and to identify mitigating measures that can be taken to address the particular risk. 

Typology of Workplace Violence​​
​Type
Description
​I.   Criminal Intent
The perpetrator has no legitimate business relationship to the workplace and usually enters the affected workplace to commit a robbery or other criminal act.
​II.  Customer/client
The perpetrator is either the recipient or the object of a service provided by the affected workplace or the victim. The assailant may be a current or former client, patient, customer, passenger, criminal suspect, inmate, or prisoner.
​III.  Co-worker
The perpetrator has some employment-related involvement with the affected workplace. Usually this involves an assault by a current or former employee, supervisor or manager.
​IV.  Personal relationship
The perpetrator is someone who does not work there but has or is known to have had a personal relationship with an employee.

Source: Cal/OSHA.


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Create a workplace violence prevention plan

According to OSHA, the building blocks for developing an effective workplace violence prevention program include:

Management commitment and employee participation. Management commitment, including the endorsement and involvement of top management, will provide the motivation and resources necessary for a successful initiative. Including all levels of employees in the process and soliciting employee feedback allows workers to share their broad range of experience and skills and to provide different perspectives and viewpoints to identify workplace violence hazards and mitigate risks.

Worksite analysis. Conducting a needs assessment to evaluate an organization's vulnerability to violence is a vital step in preparing a workplace violence prevention plan. This involves an inspection of the workplace to find existing or potential hazards that may lead to incidents of workplace violence, including an analysis of the physical environment and hazards specific to particular jobs, departments, shifts, etc. See Example Evaluation of the Physical Environment andPreventing Workplace Violence: 10 Critical Components of a Security Plan.

Hazard prevention and control. Once hazards are identified in the workplace, the employer must identify and implement appropriate controls to eliminate or reduce the hazard. OSHA recommends the following:

    • Substitution of the hazardous practice with a safer work practice such as the use of "buddy systems" when personal safety may be in jeopardy.
    • Physical changes that either remove the hazard or create a barrier between the worker and the hazard, such as doors and locks, metal detectors, panic buttons, improved lighting, and accessible exits.
    • Changes in work practices and administrative procedures such as a visitor sign-in process or a requirement for home health care workers to contact the office after each in-home visit.

Safety and health training. Training should be provided at all levels of the organization upon hire and at least annually thereafter. Suggested topics include an overview of the workplace violence prevention plan, including identified hazards and control measures; risk factors for particular occupations; ways to prevent or diffuse volatile situations; the location and use of safety devices such as alarm systems and panic buttons; and other topics identified by the employer as appropriate to the particular workplace.

NIOSH offers a video that discusses practical measures for identifying risk factors for violence at work and strategic actions that can be taken to keep employees safe. According to NIOSH, the guidance is based on extensive research, supplemented with information from other authoritative sources.

Record-keeping and program evaluation. Maintenance of records is required, including required logs of work-related injuries and illnesses (OSHA Form 300), workers' compensation records, training records, safety committee minutes, and the identification and correction of recognized hazards.

Consider insurance needs

Employers should consult with their general liability and workers' compensation insurance providers to ensure adequate coverage. Workplace violence or active shooter insurance policies are available to supplement general liability coverage. According to the International Risk Management Institute, workplace violence insurance provides "coverage for the expenses that a company incurs resulting from workplace violence incidents. The policies cover items such as the cost of hiring independent security consultants, public relations experts, death benefits to survivors, and business interruption (BI) expenses."

Know the warning signs

Experts with the Center for Personal Protection & Safety say that when survivors of workplace shootings committed by co-workers remember the incident, they often recall signs that something was wrong—that there were behaviors that should have caused concern. Generally, any behavior that makes employees uncomfortable or leaves them feeling intimidated is cause for alarm.

These behaviors include being disruptive, aggressive and hostile as well as exhibiting prolonged anger, holding grudges, being hypersensitive to criticism, blaming others, being preoccupied with violence and being sad for a long period of time. Experts say what begins as sadness can lead to depression and suicide. Individuals who are contemplating suicide might think about taking their lives and the lives of others as well.

There are other signs. If someone who usually is friendly and outgoing becomes quiet and disengaged, that could be cause for concern. Sometimes people who experience a loss, a death, a reprimand, financial trouble, a layoff or termination can snap. Be mindful, too, of people who are the victims of stalking or domestic violence. Their personal lives might put their colleagues at risk. See Preventing Workplace Violence Inspired by COVID-19.


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Recognize risky situations

There are circumstances in every workplace that increase the risk of a violent incident, including terminating volatile employees and dealing with workers who show signs of potential violence due to a mental illness.

Terminations

According to psychologist Marc McElhaney, CEO of Critical Response Associates, a consulting firm that helps organizations conduct threat assessments, manage crises and separate high-risk workers from the organization safely, there are four general types of problem employees who might cause trouble if they are fired. However, it is important to note that there's no profile of someone most likely to commit violence—anyone is capable of it.

  • The Workplace Bully has a history of intimidation. He gets away with bad behavior because no one wants to confront him or make him mad.
  • The Disgruntled Employee believes she has been treated unfairly and can't let go of feeling abused by the organization. She is withdrawn, goes to work in a daze, is unhappy and blames the system for her problems. When she is fired, she might take that opportunity to get back at the company.
  • The Overly Attached Employee is "the one who won't go away." This person's identity is dependent on his job. He doesn't have many friends or family. Work is his social life, his recreation, his sense of self. If he is fired, he'll feel betrayed, rejected and angry.
  • The Nothing-Left-to-Lose Employee is usually in emotional distress because of recent, critical losses in her life. She might be divorced or widowed, have a limited support system, or even seem suicidal. 

Mental Illness

There are times when an employee who is suspected or known by an employer to have a mental illness may seem on the verge of violent conduct. When can, or should, an employer act?

Legally, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and many state laws prohibit discrimination against employees based on an actual or perceived disability, and mental illness is included within the definition of disability. An employer may wish to require a fitness-for-duty exam for a potentially mentally ill employee, but targeting an employee simply due to a real or perceived disability would run afoul of the law, as the ADA generally does not allow medical exams during employment.

However, if such an employee is displaying some of the indicators of potential violence in the checklist above, and the employer has good reason to believe that an employee has a condition that may present a threat of harm to himself or others, requiring an exam would be allowable. The reason must be based on objective facts, not fear or conjecture. The ADA also allows employers to take action if they can show that an employee poses a direct threat to others, defined as "a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by a reasonable accommodation." The threat must be based on "an individualized assessment of the [employee's] present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job" based on a reasonable medical judgment or objective evidence. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, this assessment must include the following factors:

  1. The duration of the risk.
  2. The nature and severity of the potential harm.
  3. The likelihood the potential harm will occur.
  4. The imminence of the potential harm.

The availability of any reasonable accommodation that would reduce or eliminate the risk of harm must also be considered.

Employers are encouraged to seek legal counsel prior to taking action or requiring medical exams of employees to avoid violating the ADA.

See Managing High-Risk Employees and Creating a Mental Health-Friendly Workplace.


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Encourage reporting

Employee reports of suspicious or threatening behavior are critical to effective violence prevention programs, and employers should ensure that the internal culture supports such reporting. Workers need to have confidence that their reports will be taken seriously, that their identities won't be divulged unnecessarily and that leaders will take appropriate action. If employees lack confidence in their manager to handle a threatening situation or to report such incidents, employers may want to appoint a more senior person or an HR representative to field concerns.

Furthermore, employers might want to set up a hotline where employees can anonymously report concerns. Whatever method they choose, businesses must make sure employees understand that they must respond immediately and diligently if they perceive a threat. It is a good idea during training to review scenarios that employees might want to report and to explain that they should err on the side of over-reporting.


How to Respond to Workplace Violence

Despite diligent efforts to prevent workplace violence, incidents can and do occur. There is no fail-safe method to eliminate workplace violence entirely, although implementing the prevention strategies recommended by experts and discussed in this toolkit can be very effective. When violence does enter the workplace, employers can be prepared by identifying early the existence of the threat, responding appropriately by involving law enforcement and other professionals, and ensuring that all employees are knowledgeable about effective strategies to reduce the likelihood of injury.

Assess threats

A threat assessment team is an internal committee of employees from different levels and expertise within an organization whose role is to assess the seriousness and likelihood of a threat once it has been recognized. Training for the threat assessment team should include, at a minimum:

  • Behavioral and psychological aspects of workplace violence.
  • Identification of concerning behaviors.
  • Violence risk screening.
  • Investigatory and intervention techniques.
  • Incident resolution.
  • Multidisciplinary case management strategies.

Most employers will need to engage external specialists with expertise in risk management and workplace violence prevention and intervention to provide the necessary training.

The primary goal of a threat assessment team is to receive and review nonemergency incident reports and recommend appropriate action. In the event of imminent emergency situations, emergency personnel should be contacted immediately.


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The threat assessment team can accomplish four goals when it conducts its interview of an employee who has threatened others or acted inappropriately:

  • Alert the employee that his behavior has been noticed.
  • Give him the opportunity to tell his story.
  • Gather information about the person.
  • Let him know the behavior is unacceptable.

When internal expertise is not available for certain threats, employers will need to consult with an external professional experienced in threat assessments and crisis management.

Active shooters

In the event of an active shooter in the workplace, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provides guidance employers can use to ensure that their employees know how to respond and understand when to run, hide or fight.

See Active Shooter – How to Respond.


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Suicidal employees

Suicide threats should always be taken seriously. A human resource professional or the employee's supervisor may be the first person to identify a potentially suicidal employee, so it is critical to recognize the warning signs and encourage at-risk employees to seek help.

If an employee appears to be planning to take action immediately, local emergency authorities should be contacted, since employers usually are not qualified to handle such a situation directly. If there are doubts as to whether the threat is immediate, the HR professional should contact local services, such as an employee assistance program, suicide hotline or hospital. Given the risks of failing to act, it is best to seek professional assistance as soon as possible.

The following are some of the signs you might notice in an employee that may be reason for concern:

  • Talking about wanting to die or wanting to kill oneself.
  • Making a plan or looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online.
  • Buying a gun or stockpiling pills.
  • Feeling empty, hopeless or like there is no reason to live.
  • Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
  • Talking about being a burden to others.
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.
  • Sleeping too little or too much.
  • Withdrawing from family or friends or feeling isolated.
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.
  • Saying goodbye to loved ones; putting affairs in order.

Source: The National Institute of Mental Health.

See NIMH Frequently Asked Questions About Suicide.

Domestic violence

Domestic violence becomes a workplace issue when the violence follows a victim to work. Employers should avoid dismissing domestic violence as a personal issue as many victims of domestic violence can benefit from the support of their employer. By developing individual and workplace safety plans, employers can prepare for the potential that a domestic situation will escalate in the workplace. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational and Health Safety, such plans may include the following actions:

  • Ask if the victim has already established protection or restraining orders. Help to make sure all the conditions of that order are followed.
  • Talk to the employee; work together to identify solutions. Follow up and check on his or her well-being.
  • Ask for a recent photo or description of the abuser. Alert others such as security and reception so they are aware of who to look for.
  • When necessary, relocate the worker so that he or she cannot be seen through windows or from the outside.
  • Do not include the employee's contact information in publicly available company directories or on the company website.
  • Change the employee's phone number, have another person screen his or her calls, or block the abuser's calls and e-mails.
  • Preprogram 911 on a phone or cellphone. Install a panic button in the employee's work area or provide personal alarms.
  • Provide a well-lit parking spot near the building or escort the individual to his or her car or to public transit.
  • Offer flexible work scheduling if it can be a solution.
  • Call the police if the abuser exhibits criminal activity such as stalking or unauthorized electronic monitoring.
  • If the victim and abuser work at the same workplace, do not schedule both employees to work at the same time or location wherever possible.
  • If the victim and abuser work at the same workplace, use disciplinary procedures to hold the abuser accountable for unacceptable behavior in the workplace.

[Adapted from: Making It Our Business (2014) from the Centre for Research & Education on Violence against Women & Children]

See:

An Employer's Role in Preventing Partner Abuse

When Domestic Violence Comes to Work

What Employers Can Do When Domestic Violence Enters the Workplace.

Bomb or arson threats

Employers should take all bomb or arson threats seriously. The Department of Homeland Security provides a Bomb Threat Checklist employers can use to ensure that all employees know how to handle bomb threats and the procedures to follow.

For threats made via phone, the DHS provides the following guidance:

  • Keep the caller on the line as long as possible. Be polite and show interest to keep them talking.
  • DO NOT HANG UP, even if the caller does.
  • If possible, signal or pass a note to other staff to listen and help notify authorities.
  • Write down as much information as possible—caller ID number, exact wording of threat, type of voice or behavior, etc.—that will aid investigators.
  • Record the call, if possible.

Suspicious mail or packages

All employees with mail-handling responsibilities should be trained in identifying suspicious packages and mail. See USPS: Handling and Processing Mail Safely.

If a suspicious package or piece of mail is identified, employees should know who to contact internally and when emergency personnel should be contacted. In addition, employees should follow identified procedures, including the following:

  • Remain calm.
  • Do not open the letter or package.
  • Leave the item where it is or place it gently on a flat surface.
  • Cover the item using a trash can, article of clothing, etc.
  • Shut off fans or equipment in the area that circulate air.
  • Alert others to leave the area and keep away from the item.
  • Evacuate the area, closing the door and blocking the bottom of the door with a towel, coat, etc.
  • Wash hands with soap and water.

Employers may want to post these procedures within the mailroom or provide mail-handling employees with pocket cards or another means to readily access the information.


Related Resources

SHRM Workplace Violence Resource Page

Preventing Workplace Violence: A Road Map for Healthcare Facilities

Workplace Violence Policy

Workplace Violence Prevention Policy

Weapon-Free Workplace Policy

Available in the SHRM Store:

Give Your Company a Fighting Chance: An HR Guide to Understanding and Preventing Workplace Violence

Workplace Violence: The Early Warning Signs

Example Workplace Violence Prevention Programs and Procedures:

State Auto

Washington State

State of California

External Resources

There are numerous resources available to employers to assist in preparing a workplace violence prevention program. Federal and state OSHA offices are a good place to start. In addition, NIOSH, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), and other state and federal offices may offer tools and resources to assist employers.

DOL Workplace Violence Program
OSHA Workplace Violence Prevention Programs
FBI: Workplace Violence: Issues in Response
Workplace Violence Prevention Strategies and Research Needs
Example Workplace Violence Handbook
Online Workplace Violence Prevention Course for Nurses
NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluations
Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention ANSI Standard
DHS Interagency Security Committee Violence in the Federal Workplace Guide


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