A Serious Challenge for Corporate America

Thomas Cox's article "Aggression and Violence in the Workplace: A Serious Challenge for Corporate America," was featured in the June issue of the Atlanta Tribune.

Whether corporate America is willing to come to grips with this fact or not, workplace violence is relatively common in the modern workplace. Surveys show that up to twenty-seven percent of U.S. workers report experiencing abusive conduct at work. Twenty-one percent experience having witnessed this type of aggressive behavior or violence in the workplace.

Workplace violence is generally defined as any form of aggression intended to harm, harass, or abuse others. The intended harm may not always be physical. Workplace violence may include non-physical abuse with an intent to cause psychological or emotional harm.

Workplace violence and aggression are expensive problems in corporate America. Workplace violence and aggression cause missed work, health care expenses, the potential for legal claims and related attorneys’ fees and other potential costs. Of course, there are other intangible factors to consider, such as harm to a company’s reputation or damage to overall employee morale. What can a company do to prevent workplace violence and what are some of the warning signs?

Indicators of violence or aggression include employees who are experiencing emotional difficulties, excessive tardiness or absenteeism, as well as expressions of contempt for fellow workers or supervisors. Signs of paranoia may also be an indicator of increased potential for violence. More direct signs of potential workplace violence might also include an obsession with violence or firearms, making threats, actual fighting with co-workers, and what has been referred to as “minor” violence. Examples of “minor” violence could include bumping into a co-worker. This could also include threatening verbal confrontations by aggressive co-workers. Moodiness, symptoms of withdrawal, or other unusual behavior could also presage potential aggressive or violent behavior.

Employers could be on the hook for failing to act to prevent workplace violence. A victim of workplace violence could assert claims for negligent hiring or retention, and claims for physical and mental harm. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has increasingly cited employers who have failed to adequately protect their workers from violence in the workplace. Many state laws also impose upon employers a general duty of care toward their employees to provide a safe workplace. A recent new phenomenon of “active shooter” training is now a part of the culture of some workplaces.

In addition, there is also a trend toward outlawing bullying, although these efforts have not been broadly embraced by state legislators. Because of the relationship between bullying and violence, employers should not turn a blind eye simply because there is no specific law banning it. Bullying may lead to claims of discrimination or worse if left unchecked.

In the face of this new reality, what can an employer do to reduce the risk of violence in the workplace? One of the most important steps an employer can take is to develop and enact workplace violence and bullying policies that take an active role in resolving and preventing aggression in the workplace. Well-defined reporting procedures are essential. Of course, in response to reports of workplace violence, employers should investigate immediately and take all steps necessary to ensure a safe workplace. If appropriate, this could involve discipline including termination. Workplace security might also be enhanced. Finally, vigilance for signs of potential violence and additional training may be appropriate. One day soon, you may be asked to attend active shooter training in your workplace.