As an owner or manager of a business, employers must now routinely recognize and respond to the phenomenon of bullying and other acts of aggression in the workplace. Bullying and workplace violence are areas of ever increasing potential liability for business owners and management. Failing to prepare for and respond to possible acts of bullying and aggressive behavior in the workplace have potentially catastrophic consequences, and may subject the business to several types of potential liability.

Bullying is any deliberate, hurtful, repeated mistreatment of an employee, often driven by a desire to control the individual. Group bullying is called “mobbing.” Examples of bullying include yelling, intimidating gestures as well as hostile stares and insults. Bullying is a form of workplace violence. Workplace violence is defined generally as any physical assault, threatening behavior or verbal abuse occurring in a workplace setting. Workplace violence includes a broad range of aggressive behavior, from obscene phone calls, to physical violence.

A quick scan of today’s headlines reveal that bullying and other acts of workplace violence are all too common occurrences in our society. These tragic events are not easily limited to any demographic group and can occur in any type of workplace. For instance, in early 2010, a college professor shot and killed three coworkers after being denied tenure. A month earlier, a 23-year employee of a transformer manufacturing plant killed four coworkers and injured five others. The shooter was involved in a dispute over retirement benefits. On the subject of bullying, a 2010 Zogby Poll revealed that 34.4 percent of respondents felt bullied at work. Almost half of poll respondents had suffered or witnessed workplace bullying. Employers that ignore and fail to address signs of bullying and workplace violence face a myriad of potentially adverse consequences. There is even anecdotal evidence to suggest that the current economic environment has caused an increase in bullying and workplace violence. Widespread job loss, decreased job security and the ever increasing demands that employees do more with less can push some employees to the breaking point. When combined with renewed rights to carry concealed weapons and to transport weapons in vehicles, employers must be prepared.

Employers and business owners may face claims of failure to provide a safe workplace, as well as vicarious liability and negligent hiring claims as a result of workplace violence. Additionally, bullying and workplace violence can result in a failure to warn claim, as well as claims based on negligent referral and misrepresentation. Finally, employers may face claims based on negligent supervision and retention. A violent incident may lead to additional claims.

Employers and business owners should consult with competent counsel and develop a comprehensive workplace violence prevention policy. All reports of a violation of the policy should be thoroughly investigated and promptly acted upon.

In addition to adopting the appropriate policy, employers should scrutinize the hiring process and scan the work environment for signs of bullying and workplace violence. The use of background checks in the hiring process is also useful. Comprehensive training is also very important.

Although workplace violence prevention policies and training can’t guarantee safety, they can go a long way toward reducing incidents of violence. They also provide an essential defense to the company when and if violence does occur, so long as the policies are followed.

Copyright ©2011 by L&L Communications d/b/a Atlanta Tribune: The Magazine, Thomas A. Cox. Jr. Esq, author. Posted with permission from publisher. All rights reserved by the original copyright holder.