Why You Can't Ignore Workplace Violence in the New Work Environment

Workplace violence is an issue that businesses cannot ignore.  It’s a growing problem in our society and not taking a proactive approach can expose an organization to liability and reputation issues.  According to the National Safety Council, assault is now the 5th leading cause of death in the workplace. 

The phrase “Workplace Violence” encompasses a wide range of events that can occur within the work environment.  It’s defined as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, or threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. 

Examples of workplace violence include: 

  • Intentional harm inflicted on a person 
  • Physical Violence 
  • Harassment 
  • Stalking 
  • Robbery
  • Bomb Threats
  • Use of Weapons

Workplace Violence is a Huge Problem 

Reports from the National Safety Council, National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security break down the statistics of workplace violence into categories and types.  And the numbers are hard to believe. 

  • 22% of workers report being exposed to workplace violence 
  • 12% of workers have said that workplace violence contributed to injuries 
  • Assaults in the workplace have increased 71% in the last 10 years 

NIOSH has determined there are four categories of workplace violence: employee-on-employee, partnership, customer/client, and criminal.  When developing a workplace violence prevention program, each of these areas needs to be considered in an organization’s mitigation plan. 

When looking at the injury facts, it’s clear that service industries and healthcare are at the most risk for workplace violence.  However, there have been a significant number of events in the professional services industry, retail, education, food service, transportation, and real estate.  No industry is excluded from this risk. 

How Organizations Experience Workplace Violence 

When most business leaders think of workplace violence, the image of a random active shooter or a disgruntled employee may come to mind.  But there are a wide range of situations that can be considered workplace violence. 

Employee-on-employee violence can include arguments or harassment between employees working together or even on the management team.  Disgruntled employees may take out their anger or frustration on other employees, managers, or the department. 

Sometimes, issues outside of work can carry through to the workplace.  If an employee is experiencing a dispute with a partner or acquaintance outside of work, their risk does not end when they clock in.  There have been events where non-employees of a business come into the workplace to violently confront an employee. 

Customer service complaints can escalate into a violence issue.  We can never completely understand the psyche of another person and in these situations, they feel the company has “wronged” them in some way.  If the resolution is not to their liking, there’s always the risk of them taking it further than a complaint or posting comments on social media.  Many organization’s physical address is public record, making it readily available for an angry customer to show up in person to complain. 

Criminal activity that can result in violence within the workplace can range from robberies of company property to assailants coming in contact with employees, at times with weapons or threats of physical violence.  Mischievous criminal activities can also be in the form of harassment and violence; such as anonymous bomb threats, destruction of property, or harassing phone calls.  Anything that would put the receiver, the employee, in a perceived threat situation can be considered workplace violence. 

When considering mitigation strategies for criminal activities, you must also look at the surrounding businesses.  Depending on their prevention strategies, their business or activities may increase the risk of violence to your organization.  In addition, the risk of an active shooter or escaped assailant/convict (depending on the proximity to detainment facilities) should also be considered.     

Lone Workers Can Be More Suspectable to Workplace Violence 

 Criminal activity and violence is often motivated by opportunity.  And employees working on their own, away from the workplace present that opportunity.  In addition, lone workers can be customer-facing; meaning they are who your customers are face-to-face with when complaints arise. 

Without the controlled environment of a physical work building, lone workers are exposed to the same chance of violence as the general public along with the added risk of a workplace issue and opportunity. 

This increased the scope of hazards for your lone workers makes it more difficult to mitigate the risk of workplace violence.  Making regular safety check-in not only a best practice but a necessity. 

Why You Can’t Ignore This Issue 

Even though most instances of workplace violence are not directly the fault of the organization, that does not mean companies cannot be liable.  And every instance of workplace violence harms the organization in some way. 

Failure to put controls in place for identified hazards, including workplace violence, can result in regulatory fines and liability.  When victims of workplace violence cannot get restitution from the assailant, the next target will be the company. 

In addition, under many workers’ compensation rules, the cost of injuries that occur in the workplace fall to the employers.  This is especially true when the injured worker was not actively participating in the violence. 

For example:  Two employees verbally argue in the workplace.   One employee attacks another and causes an injury.  The injured worker reacts in self-defense only and does not escalate the incident.  In most areas, the injured worker will be covered by workers’ compensation and the attacker would not.  If the injured worker had warned the company about the situation and the company had little to no controls in place, the cost of their claim can increase due to negligence. 

Another consideration is the reputation of the company.  When workplace violence issues gain media attention, all eyes are scrutinizing the company.  Their policies and procedures as well as how they responded will go on public trial.  If it’s found more could have been done to prevent the situation, the negative publicity can affect the company’s current and future earnings. 

What To Do to Protect Your Organization from Workplace Violence 

All organizations need to have a workplace violence prevention program in place.  And it all starts with taking a detailed look at the hazards the organization is exposed to in the four categories of workplace violence. 

Once the hazards are identified, create systems and processes to reduce the risks of those hazards.  And always take warning signs seriously, you never know what may be the tipping point to turn a calm situation into a violent one.