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Workplace Violence: It Can Happen Anywhere

Violent behaviors may come from a white-collar employee, a blue-collar worker, or a third party, such as customers or an employee's partner. What are some common factors or warning signs of workplace violence of which you should be aware?
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Varying degrees of workplace violence can happen anywhere, and at any time. According to OSHA, nearly 2 million American workers report having been victims of workplace violence each year, yet many more cases go unreported.

While there’s no standard or regulation applicable to workplace violence, OSHA does have a General Duty Clause that it enforces, 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 of serious physical harm to his employees.”

While workplace violence may happen anywhere at any time, it may also be instigated by anyone. Violent behaviors may come from a white-collar employee, a blue-collar worker, or a third party–such as customers or an employee's partner. What are some common factors or warning signs to be on the lookout for in the workplace?

Common Motivating Factors

Workplace violence can occur as the result of bullying or harassment. It may also result from situations like:

  • Involuntary termination;
  • Interpersonal conflicts with coworkers;
  • Dissatisfaction with service; or
  • Domestic violence that spills over into the workplace.

Potential Warning Signs

In many cases of workplace violence, there are warning signs. Some potential indicators may include:

  • History of violent or disruptive behavior;
  • A persistently disgruntled person;
  • A disregard for authority;
  • Someone who has a fixation with a co-worker;
  • Someone who has a fascination with violent themes or products; or
  • Workers with a higher risk of becoming victims of violence, such as those who exchange money with the public, delivery drivers, healthcare professionals, public service workers, customer service agents, law enforcement personnel, and those who work alone or in small groups.

What Can Employers Do to Help Prevent Workplace Violence?

Every employer, regardless of size, should have a workplace violence prevention program in place. 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. Cover all workers, patients, clients, visitors, contractors, and others who may come in contact with company personnel.
  • Hire the best 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 which restrict certain background checks. Consider a compliance 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 the incidences of workplace violence. Consider analyzing hazards that are common to your industry, or evaluating the adequacy of your workplace security.
  • Develop of 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 for workplace violence, define unacceptable behaviors and work standards, 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 important 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 actions by employees. 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 offer help to struggling employees, and may prevent conflicts from escalating.
  • Provide the right 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 talk to if they feel they are being bullied, harassed, or even threatened? Education is a key element of a workplace violence protection program. Consistent training helps ensure that all staff members are aware of potential hazards and how to protect themselves and their coworkers through established policies and procedures.

Accurate records are important to determine the severity of a problem, evaluate hazards, and help in court claims.

Read this OSHA Fact Sheet for more potential elements of a workplace violence prevention program.

Of course, employers can't prevent all workplace violence, but reviewing and implementing the information above may help employers take necessary steps to minimize the chances.

About the Author

Jennifer Benz, PHR, is a Senior HR Generalist with Paychex, where she has worked since 2005. Her professional practice is concentrated on HR and she works with small and medium-sized businesses in the Long Island, NY area. Jennifer has her bachelor's degree in Business Management from Stony Brook University, has been PHR (Professional in Human Resources) certified since 2010, and is a member of the Long Island chapter of the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM).

 

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