Employers generally recognize they have a legal obligation to provide their employees with a safe environment in which to work. For many employers, this simply means minimizing employees' exposure to serious risk of injury or death due to work-related processes, machinery, and other operational causes. However, the legal obligation to provide employees with a safe work environment also includes minimizing the potential that they will be the victims of workplace violence. This goal can be achieved by preparing and using effective policies, practices, and procedures.

The Risk of Workplace Violence Is Real

Twenty percent of all violent crime in the United States occurs in the workplace. An estimated 1.7 million employees are injured each year because of workplace assaults. A recent U.S. Department of Labor (http://www.dol.gov/) survey of employers with 1,000 or more workers disclosed that more than 50 percent reported at least one incident of workplace violence during the preceding 12-month period. One out of three employees feels he or she has been bullied on the job. In other words, no employer is immune from the prospect of workplace violence.

Causes of Workplace Violence

An employee may unexpectedly develop a propensity to engage in workplace violence because of a myriad of issues related to work, family, financial adversity, or other pressures. For example, the discipline or discharge of an employee and how he or she is — or perceives — being treated by coworkers and management may precipitate violent behavior.

Potential Precursors to Workplace Violence

Employers can minimize the prospect of workplace violence if coworkers and managers identify, acknowledge, and respond appropriately to behavior that may be a precursor to workplace violence, such as:

  • Direct or implied verbal threats expressed by an employee about coworkers, management, customers, or family members
  • Other threatening behavior or gestures exhibited by an employee
  • Possession of weapons on the premises
  • Expression of extreme fascination with weapons
  • Paranoid or other unusual behavior
  • Extreme adverse reaction to coaching, discipline, or constructive criticism
  • Manifestation of extreme depression, delusional behavior, and/or suicidal inclination
  • History of violent behavior
  • Disregard for the safety of co-workers
  • Romantic or other obsession with or stalking of another employee

How should an employer effectively create incentives for coworkers and managers to timely and appropriately address behaviors that may lead to violence in the workplace? As will be discussed in a later issue on this topic, an employer must have effective policies, practices, and procedures regarding acceptable workplace behavior, situations that pose potential for workplace violence, and how to deal with an instance of workplace violence.