From threats and intimidation to rapes and shootings, workplace violence is a growing concern among employers of all sizes and in all industries. A recent survey from SHRM reported that nearly half of HR professionals said their organization had experienced a violent incident – with more than half of those occurring in the last year.
Consider these statistics:
- One-sixth of violent crimes occur in the workplace.
- 18,000 are assaulted at work every week.
- Violence is the second leading cause of workplace deaths.
And these figures may be underreported, with an estimated two million victims in the workplace each year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Fear among employees is understandable and is why HR pros need to step up their efforts to make workers feel safe by ensuring a secure environment – or risk lost productivity, reputational harm, and legal expenses.
Types of workplace violence
To address a company’s exposure, organizations first must understand what is behind workplace violence. OSHA defines workplace violence as: any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health classifies violent acts into these four main categories:
Criminal Intent: In these cases, criminals do not have a relationship with the business or its workers but commit acts of violence while perpetrating a crime on the premises like robbery. These criminals often target workplaces where employees manage large sums of cash or work alone – think convenience store.
Customer/Client: Violent acts by a disgruntled customer against an organization or its employees are common, especially in healthcare (e.g. waiting rooms and other hospital areas), social service and educational institutions. In fact, healthcare is the most dangerous profession due to workplace violence.
Worker-Worker: Current or former employees are frequent perpetrators, especially following a personal conflict between colleagues or work-related issues such as disciplinary action or poor performance review that makes managers and supervisors likely targets.
Personal Relationship: Often, perpetrators do not have any connection to the business except a relationship with an employee outside of work, like a spouse or intimate partner. With one in four women experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this type of violence poses the greatest threat to female workers but can spill into the workplace and affect all employees.
Another category – extreme beliefs – is increasingly at the root of many workplace violence incidents, with ideological, political or religious motivations common behind mass shootings and terrorist incidents. Whatever the cause, in all of these cases, it is not just the victims who are affected but coworkers, customers and even witnesses, making it imperative for companies to prevent violence before it happens.
Warning signs of workplace violence
While there is no singular cause of violence in the workplace, there are often contributing factors. Triggers like a dispute or financial difficulties are behind many incidents by both unknown and known assailants. In many of the cases, the perpetrator blames others and wants to get even by retaliating with violence. When strangers face these troubles, it may not be possible for a company to spot and anticipate how they may react.
But when the situations involve staff, employers may be able to identify behavioral changes that can signal impending violence. The National Safety Council outlines several behaviors to watch for, including:
- Excessive drug or alcohol use
- Unexplained absences, change in behavior or decline in job performance
- Depression, withdrawal or suicidal thoughts
- Resistance to changes at work or complaints that they are treated unfairly
- Violation of company policies
- Emotional response to criticism and/or mood swings
These noticeable differences may manifest with threats first, such as talking about weapons or violence. When the risk becomes more immediate, perpetrators of workplace violence will likely display some additional clues, including using abusive language. When faced with the potential for imminent violence, those in the workplace should not argue or raise their voices. Instead, they should follow established procedures.
Training and Prevention
A safe and healthy workplace fosters opportunities and growth for employees and the business alike, while violence has the opposite effect, negatively affecting morale, performance and profitability. To help prevent incidents, California has passed legislation aimed at curbing workplace violence but, as yet, no standards exist at the national level. While pressures mount on legislators to act, employers in the meantime can take their own steps to develop and implement a plan to protect workers.
Develop a Policy: If you do not have one already, create a zero-tolerance policy and share it in your handbook or other procedures manual. Make sure you educate everyone on the policy, enforcement of it, and the consequences for violations.
Establish Security Procedures: Develop comprehensive measures that cover basic security, such as the importance of locking valuables, wearing ID and escorting visitors that all employees should follow. Depending on the environment, you may also want to utilize additional measures like coded entries, silent alarms and danger signals.
Hold Safety Training: While no one wants to think about an active shooter situation, instruct employees on how to respond when one is in the vicinity. The Department of Homeland Security offers several resources for HR professionals. In addition, offer training on steps workers can take to protect themselves, like avoiding being alone when working after hours and letting security know when they leave.
Follow Reporting Procedures: Make sure your security policy outlines reporting procedures when employees are in immediate danger. Additionally, employees should be instructed on what to do when faced with non-urgent threats, such as aggressive discussions, suspicious behavior or the presence of weapons or strangers on the property.
Prepare Staff on Hiring and Firing Measures: Managers and supervisors should take part in training on how to use the hiring process to prevent violent employees from entering the workforce, including how to conduct effective background investigations and reference checks. These staff should also be educated on conflict resolution, handling employee grievances and holding termination meetings to help avoid potentially dangerous situations.
While less tangible, do not overlook the importance of creating a positive culture based on respect and support, one that will encourage employees to speak up to HR about their own personal or professional challenges before they could escalate into something uncontrollable.