Is your company a breeding ground for workplace violence?

November 6, 2003
By: Vicki Bell

Workplace violence—many of us think about it only when national or local media reports an incident. Most of us probably think it happens infrequently and never could happen where we work. And it's likely that workplace violence victims thought the same thing, before it happened to them.

Approximately 2 million U.S. workers are victims of workplace violence each year. In 1997 the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported that an average of 20 workers are murdered each week in the U.S., and an estimated 18,000 per week are victims of nonfatal workplace assaults each year.

Homicide is the second leading cause of death on the job, second only to motor vehicle crashes. Homicide is the leading cause of workplace death among females and workers under 18 years of age.

More Than Homicide

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines workplace violence as violence or the threat of violence against workers. It can occur outside the workplace and can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide.

The University of California (UC) Davis campus, in accordance with a 1994 mandate from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, incorporated a violence prevention and response component as part of its safety program. In addressing the subject, the college categorized unacceptable actions as disruptive, threatening, or violent behavior.

Disruptive behavior disturbs, interferes with, or prevents normal work functions or activities, for example, yelling, using profanity, waving arms or fists, verbally abusing others, and refusing reasonable requests for identification.

Threatening behavior includes physical actions short of actual contact or injury, such as moving closer aggressively; general oral or written threats to people or property, such as "You'd better watch your back" or "I'll get you"; as well as implicit threats, such as "You'll be sorry" or "This isn't over."

Violent behavior includes any physical assault, with or without weapons; behavior that a reasonable person would interpret as being potentially violent, such as throwing things, pounding on a desk or door, or destroying property; or a specific threat to inflict physical harm, such as a threat to shoot a named individual.

When we consider these comprehensive definitions of workplace violence, we can see that violence is not that rare, and it can happen in any workplace.

At Risk

No business is immune to workplace violence, and anyone can become a victim. However, certain factors place workers at greater risk for violence. These factors include interacting with the public, exchanging money, delivering goods or services, working late at night or early in the morning, working alone, guarding valuable goods or property, and dealing with violent people or volatile situations.

According to NIOSH, the occupations with the highest homicide rates are taxicab drivers and chauffeurs (22.7 percent), followed by sheriffs and bailiffs (10.7 percent), police and detectives in public service (6.1 percent), gas station and garage workers (5.9 percent), and security guards (5.5 percent). The majority of nonfatal assaults occurr in the service and retail trade industries.

Warning Signs

Although no one can predict with certainty which workplace situations will lead to violence and which employees are more likely to engage in violent behavior, a workplace is more at risk if the following conditions are present:

  • A high number of employee and customer complaints
  • High employee turnover
  • Excessive tardiness and absenteeism
  • Poor job performance
  • Poor morale
  • Lack of motivation and creativity
  • Management failure to diffuse potentially volatile situations

The Violent Individual

No specific profile of a potentially violent individual exists. However, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Profiling and Behavioral Assessment Unit has identified indicators of an increased risk of violent behavior:

  • Direct or veiled threats of harm
  • Intimidating, belligerent, harassing, bullying, or other inappropriate and aggressive behavior
  • Numerous conflicts with supervisors and other employees
  • Bringing a weapon to the workplace, brandishing a weapon in the workplace, making inappropriate references to guns, or a fascination with weapons
  • Statements showing fascination with incidents of workplace violence, statements indicating approval of the use of violence to resolve a problem, or statements indicating identification with perpetrators of workplace homicides
  • Statements indicating desperation (over family, financial, and other personal problems) to the point of contemplating suicide
  • Drug/alcohol abuse
  • Extreme changes in behaviors.


Training is a critical component of any prevention strategy. Training is necessary for employees, supervisors, and the staff members who may be involved in responding to a workplace violence incident.

The federal government's Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has published guidelines for federal agencies to deal with workplace violence. These guidelines state that all employees should know how to report incidents of violent, intimidating, threatening, and other disruptive behavior. All employees also should be provided with phone numbers for quick reference during a crisis or an emergency. The OPM lists topics that could be covered in employee violence prevention training. These topics, paraphrased below, are applicable to most organizations:

  • An explanation of the company's workplace violence policy
  • Encouragement to report incidents
  • Ways of preventing or diffusing volatile situations or aggressive behavior
  • How to deal with hostile persons
  • Managing anger
  • Techniques and skills to resolve conflicts
  • Stress management, relaxation techniques, wellness training
  • Security procedures, for example, the location and operation of safety devices, such as alarm systems
  • Personal security measures
  • Programs the company has that can assist employees in resolving conflicts, such as the Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

Management's Role

Properly trained, management can diffuse potentially violent situations. The OPM recommends that federal agency supervisory training include basic leadership skills, such as setting clear standards; addressing employee problems promptly; and using the probationary period, performance counseling, discipline, and other management tools conscientiously. These interventions can keep difficult situations from turning into major problems.

Management training should cover:

  • Ways to encourage employees to report incidents in which they feel threatened for any reason by anyone inside or outside the organization
  • Skills in behaving compassionately and supportively towards employees who report incidents
  • Skills in taking disciplinary actions
  • Basic skills in handling crisis situations
  • Basic emergency procedures
  • How to ensure that appropriate screening of pre-employment references has been done

Securing the Workplace

Taking appropriate security measures is an important deterrent to workplace violence. The measures required can depend on the size and nature of your business and can include photo IDs, special keys and badges for entering the building, and sophisticated surveillance systems.

Some guidelines apply to all situations. Always screen new employees carefully before hiring. Know who's entering your building. Install surveillance cameras to monitor all entrances and exits. It's a good idea to put phones or intercom systems within easy access of any remote areas.

If you are expecting a customer or other visitor, notify the receptionist of the expected arrival. Have the visitor wait in the reception area until you or a designated representative can escort the visitor to the appropriate office. Never allow visitors or service workers to roam your building unescorted.

Make sure that all stairways and parking lots are well-lighted and monitored. Provide an escort for employees who must walk to their automobiles after dark.

With the proper training, the right environment, and adequate security measures, you can reduce the likelihood of violence in your workplace.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209