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What Is Workplace Violence & How Can You Prevent It?

  • Human Resources
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 10/31/2023

an employee goes to human resources to file an incident report to handle workplace violence

Table of Contents

Violence in the workplace has become a tragic fact of life these days, but business leaders can do many things to minimize risk and protect the well-being of their workforce. The first step is recognizing that violence in the workplace can occur anywhere, in any setting, so it's vitally important that every precaution is made to lessen the threat to your employees.

Violent behaviors may come from an employee or a third party, such as customers or an employee's spouse or partner. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, nearly 2 million American workers report being victims of workplace violence each year, and many more cases go unreported.

While there's no federal standard or regulation regarding workplace violence, OSHA does have a General Duty Clause which states, among other things, that each employer "shall 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."

What Is Workplace Violence?

OSHA defines workplace violence as "an act that hurts or threatens a person with physical violence, verbal abuse, intimidation, harassment, and other disruptive or harmful behavior during work or occurring at one's workplace." Also, OSHA notes that acts of violence and related injuries are "currently the third-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States."

This problem can potentially affect any industry or organization. The key for employers is to do everything within their power to prevent an incidence of workplace violence and prioritize this under all circumstances.

Industries Where Workplace Violence Is More Common

Specific industries are generally more vulnerable than others. These include businesses with healthcare settings, those who employ delivery personnel, and those with frequent employee-customer interactions. Furthermore, workplace violence occurs more frequently in healthcare-related, law enforcement-related, and social services settings.

OSHA has pinpointed key risk factors that can increase the threat of violence in specific worksites, such as where "exchanging money with the public and working with volatile, unstable people" is not uncommon.

Other high-risk settings include employees working:

  • In isolated settings
  • In a venue or space where alcohol is available
  • On late-night shifts

Workplace violence in healthcare settings is a top concern. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the more than 20,000 victims of trauma from workplace violence in 2020, 76% worked in healthcare and social assistance. Experts point to various causes behind this disturbing trend, including patients' emotional turmoil regarding their medical conditions (or those of hospitalized family and friends), mounting frustrations over hospital bureaucracy, a decline in nurse staffing, mental health disorders, and related reasons.

Types of Workplace Violence

According to the Office of Justice Programs, workplace violence falls primarily within one of four types.1 Workplace violence examples include:

Type 1: Criminal intent. In this category, perpetrators are motivated by criminal intent, such as theft, shoplifting, or acts of terrorism. These individuals generally do not have any formal ties with the business.

Type 2: Customer/client. In this category, the offender has some form of relationship with the business under attack — a frustrated customer in a business setting, for example, or anyone who responds violently to the service they are receiving.

Type 3: Worker-on-worker. This type, also called "lateral violence," occurs when the perpetrator is employed, or previously employed, by the business or institution where violence occurs. It may be an actual incident or threat of physical assault, with motives originating from the workplace and between an employee and a fellow worker, manager, or supervisor.

Type 4: Personal relationship. In these attacks, the perpetrator is engaged in a personal relationship with an employee but is not usually employed by the organization. This often entails a dispute arising from domestic conditions or a romantic relationship.

It's critically important that employers understand these differing forms of potential workplace violence to implement preventative measures against them.

Potential Causes of Workplace Violence

Violence in the workplace can result from bullying or harassment. Other underlying causes may include:

  • Involuntary termination of employment
  • Conflicts with coworkers
  • Dissatisfaction with service
  • Domestic violence that spills over into the workplace

As noted, violent behaviors may come from white-collar or blue-collar workers or a third party, such as a customer or an employee's spouse/partner.

Potential Indicators and Warning Signs of Workplace Violence

In many cases, there are warning signs to alert employers of trouble ahead. Indicators of potential workplace violence may include:

  • A history of violent or disruptive behavior
  • A persistently disgruntled person
  • A disregard for authority
  • Someone who has a fixation with a coworker
  • Someone who has a fascination with violent themes or products

Some employees face a higher risk of becoming victims of violence. This is particularly true for workers who exchange money with the public, delivery drivers, healthcare workers, public service workers, customer service agents, law enforcement personnel, and those working alone or in small groups.

Preventing Workplace Violence: What Can Employers Do?

Every business should have an implemented workplace violence prevention program, regardless of size. Such programs can help shield employees from physical and emotional harm, avoid potentially costly litigation for the employer, and protect the company's reputation.

Some components of a workplace violence prevention program may include:

  • Establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence. Make sure the policy applies to and is communicated to all workers, patients, clients, visitors, contractors, and others who may contact company personnel.
  • Hire qualified candidates. Thoroughly review job applicants and conduct thorough background checks. Make sure to comply with notice requirements under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and applicable state and local laws restricting certain background checks. Consider a pre-employment, post-offer drug testing program.
  • Form a workplace violence prevention committee. Consider selecting representatives from Human Resources, Facilities/Operations Management, and Security, if applicable.
  • Conduct a worksite analysis. Have a designated workplace violence prevention committee conduct a worksite analysis of existing or potential hazards for workplace violence. This can help you implement controls that can prevent and reduce workplace violence. Consider analyzing hazards common to your industry or evaluating the adequacy of your workplace security.
  • Develop or revise workplace violence policies/programs. After completing the worksite analysis to identify areas where the company may be vulnerable to workplace violence, the committee should establish policies and procedures to prevent and control workplace violence incidents. Communicate and implement a zero-tolerance policy, define work standards and unacceptable behaviors, outline workplace violence employee rights, and provide training for managers, supervisors, and employees. Do you have a workplace violence policy in your employee handbook?
  • Keep accurate records. Keeping accurate records is essential when an employer needs to determine the severity of a problem, evaluate hazard control needs, identify training needs, or help in court if facing negligence claims involving violent incidents. Records may include the employer's policies and procedures on employee conduct, documentation of workplace violence prevention programs, minutes from safety meetings, and periodic workplace evaluations for potential safety issues.
  • Utilize an Employee Assistance Program. Offering an employee assistance program (EAP) or counseling can help struggling employees and may prevent conflicts from escalating.
  • Provide the proper training. There are many similarities between bullying, violence, and harassment. Inappropriate behavior can be verbal, physical, or electronic. Are your managers and supervisors trained on how to recognize these behaviors and how to take appropriate action? Do your employees know who they can contact if they feel bullied, harassed, or threatened? Education is a key element of a workplace violence prevention program. Consistent training helps ensure that all staff members know about potential hazards and how to protect themselves and their coworkers through established policies and procedures.

The people responsible for managing employees should behave impeccably in all workplace situations. Equally important, they must be skilled in recognizing when harassment occurs and making it apparent that such behavior won’t be tolerated. This includes being trained sufficiently so they are aware of (and know how to respond to) complaints of harassment, as well as understanding that anyone can instigate or become a victim of illegal or highly inappropriate behavior. (In some states, such training is mandatory.)

Of course, employers may not be able to prevent all workplace violence, but reviewing and implementing the information above may help them take necessary steps to minimize the chances of it occurring in their workplace.

How To Handle Workplace Violence

What if a violent incident occurs despite an employer's best efforts? The key to dealing with workplace violence is to act immediately. As part of company policy, ensure that certain key steps are taken:

  • Instruct employees to report the incident to their manager
  • Ensure that all employees are safe
  • File an incident report with human resources

Filing a report in the aftermath of an incident of violence may help businesses minimize the risk of a related lawsuit. In addition, records of any violence in the workplace can help in evaluating the future possibility of a similar incident occurring.

The Importance of Workplace Violence Policies

Doing everything possible to avoid workplace violence is (or should be) at the top of every employer's list of priorities. No one should ever be exposed to a work environment where personal safety is at risk.

Toward this end, knowing what workplace violence is, the types of workplace violence that can occur, and how to prevent violence are all essential steps in protecting your workforce. As noted, some industries are more susceptible than others to violent episodes, but all businesses face this threat. That's why it's so important to be on the lookout for warning signs of potential violence and recognize indicators suggesting it might occur. Implementing policies such as those listed above can help minimize the threat and enhance the safety of your employees.

Paychex HR Services can help address violence in the workplace. Paychex Business Insurance offers comprehensive business coverage for your organization for a wide range of potential situations.



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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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