The Threat of Violence: A Reality in the Modern Workplace

Steve Crimando | Behavioral Science Applications

Like it or not, every organization is vulnerable to workplace violence, regardless its size, type or location. An incident of workplace violence can be devastating to an organization—to employee safety and security, to employee morale, to employee retention and recruiting, and to its reputation and brand. Every organization must be aware of this risk, and every employee should understand their role in recognizing and reporting concerning behaviors.

Beyond the physical and emotional suffering that can result from job-related violence there are substantial financial risks as well. A 2014 study by Business Insurance Magazine found that:

  • The estimated cost to businesses associated with workplace violence was $121 billion each year,
  • American workers lost 876,000 workdays each year due to workplace violence resulting in $16 million dollars in lost wages, and
  • The average out-of-court settlement for workplace violence-related litigation was $500,000.00, while average jury awards were $3 million.

Homicide in the workplace is the third leading cause of death for American workers. This is obviously a problem that no employer can afford to ignore.

Employers have the moral and legal responsibility and obligation for the health, safety, and security of their employees. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor-Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have a specific regulation regarding workplace violence, it is considered a foreseeable risk, and as with other workplace hazards, OSHA states that, “employers have a “general duty” to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” In addition to OSHA’s position on workplace violence, a national standard has also been developed. Working together, the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) and American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS) helped the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) create the American National Standard for Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention. Published in September 2011, this standard has quickly become the touchstone in litigation related to injuries and deaths resulting from on- the-job violence. The emergence of such a standard helps organizations identify the key components of effective violence prevention and develop holistic approaches to mitigating this risk.

Workplace violence occurs along a continuum, ranging from psychological violence, such as intimidation and abuse, to verbal and physical abuse, and in the most extreme forms, weapons-involved violence and active shooter incidents. While statistically rare, weapons-involved violence can be devastating to victims, witnesses, and the overall workforce. Active shooter incidents are the most rare, but most extreme form of workplace violence. To help all employees recognize and prevent acts of violence on the job, it is important that there is a clear understanding of what workplace violence actually is and is not.

“Workplace violence” is defined as violence or the threat of violence against workers.  It can occur at or outside the workplace, and can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicides. This can also include threats or acts of violence or destruction of the organization’s properties. It is also important to note that workplace violence is not location-bound. All employers have a Duty of Care to their employees, regardless of where they work. Mobile workers, even telecommuters, should not be at more risk than other employees in an organization. This is an important consideration since the number of mobile workers in the U.S. is expected to rise from 96.2 million to 105.4 million over the next five years. By 2020 mobile workers will account for nearly three-quarters (72.3 percent) of the U.S. workforce, according to 2016 report from IDC.

Employers and employees should also be aware that risk of violence in the workplace comes from several sources, not simply the stereotypical “former disgruntled employee.”

  • 85% of all workplace homicides involve what OSHA has called Type I violence, in which there is no legitimate relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. Settings in which employees may work alone, late at night with cash on hand are particularly vulnerable, but all workplaces have some exposure to this risk.
  • Type II violence involves customers, clients or patients known to the worker and occurs in the normal delivery of services. Rates of Type II violence are very high in healthcare and human service work where employees are four times more likely to be the victims of violence than any other settings.
  • Type III violence is what comes to mind for most people when thinking of workplace violence. This involves current or former employees who harbor some sort of smoldering hostility toward a business, specific employees or supervisors, usual stemming from the perception of a personal or professional injustice.
  • Domestic violence or intimate partner violence that follows an employee from home to work is referred to as Type IV violence and can affect many others in the workplace who may be caught in the crossfire if a violent ex shows up at work.
  • Type V violence represents the intersection of workplace violence and terrorism. It is ideologically motivated and directed at an organization because of what it does or represents. Life science and healthcare companies, banking and financial services, and other sectors may be targeted by extremist who feel justified in attacking the organization to stop the perceived harm it is doing to animals, the environment or society.

Regardless of the type of violence or the location in which it is committed, incidents of workplace violence can often be deterred through early recognition and effective response. Knowing the warning signs and how to report concerns can help employees become the first line of defense and provide the organization with an opportunity to redirect a troubled individual to sources of help that can prevent a tragedy. People do not just snap, therefore workplace violence is best viewed as a process and not an event. By understanding the pathway to violence and the important pre-incident markers along that pathway, employers and employees can work together to reduce the likelihood of violence and create the safe and healthy workplaces necessary for individual and organizational success.

About the Author

Steve Crimando, MA, BCETS, CHS-V is the principle of Behavioral Science Applications, an innovative training and consulting firm focused to violence prevention, crisis intervention and the human element in security and emergency management. He is the featured keynote speaker at the 2017 Workplace Violence: A Multidisciplinary Perspective conference scheduled for Philadelphia on December 5.

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