Discipline & Termination | 

Keys to Preventing Workplace Violence

Each year, about 500 workers are killed as a result of work-related homicides and about 15,000 are subjected to work-related assaults, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workplace violence can occur anywhere and at any time. That's why it's important to implement workplace violence prevention measures. Here are some guidelines:

Adopt a zero-tolerance policy.

Have a zero-tolerance workplace violence policy that covers employees, clients, visitors, contractors, and anyone else who may come in contact with your workforce. Define workplace violence and provide examples, including physical assaults and verbal and nonverbal threats, harassment, and stalking. Include a clear definition of what you consider threatening behavior, such as "any oral, written, or physical conduct that threatens property or personal safety or that reasonably could be interpreted as intent to cause harm." Additionally, identify procedures for reporting concerns and the consequences for violating the policy. Give employees multiple avenues by which to report.

Recognize different types of workplace violence.

Generally, workplace violence can stem from:

  • The commission of a crime (a cashier who is assaulted during a robbery at a retail location, for example);
  • A client (such as a healthcare worker who is assaulted by a patient);
  • A co-worker; or
  • Someone who has or had a personal relationship with an employee.

When developing your prevention program, consider all types of workplace violence and tailor your strategies accordingly.

Analyze your workplace.

Conduct an analysis of the workplace, including specific jobs and locations, to identify potential risk factors for workplace violence. Risk factors may include working with unstable or volatile populations in certain healthcare, social service, or criminal justice settings; working alone or in small numbers; working late at night or during early morning hours; and responsibilities involving guarding valuable property, handling money, or delivering passengers, goods, or services. Look at safety and workers' compensation records to analyze any past incidents of workplace violence and the circumstances surrounding each incident.

Understand your responsibilities.

Under the Occupational Safety & Health (OSH) Act and many state laws, employers have an obligation to reduce or eliminate known hazards. If violence is a recognized hazard in your workplace or industry, you must take steps to prevent it. Engineering controls to help reduce a hazard or create a barrier between the employee and the hazard (for example, installing a bullet-resistant enclosure for employees who handle large sums of money) is generally most effective. Administrative controls that change the way in which employees work can also be effective. For example, prohibiting transactions with large bills and adding more staff during times and in locations where there is a higher risk of violence.

Understand responsibilities under the ADA.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws prohibit employers from discriminating against qualified applicants and employees because of a physical or mental disability. Employers must also provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants and employees with a disability, unless it would pose an undue hardship on the business. Keep in mind a mental illness may qualify as a disability under these laws. In such cases, employers are generally prohibited from refusing to employ an individual because they have a mental illness, unless the employer can show that the individual poses a direct safety threat that cannot be reasonably accommodated. However, if an employee violates a job-related rule pertaining to violence or threats of violence, and all employees are held to the same standard, an employer may discipline the employee for their misconduct. Consider consulting legal counsel if you have specific questions regarding disciplinary action for misconduct by an employee with a mental disability.

Limit access to the workplace and secure parking lots.

Consider having a single point of entry to the building, institute a sign-in procedure for visitors, use identification badges and electronic key systems for employees, and prohibit employees from propping open exterior doors. Ensure that parking areas are monitored, well lit, and safely accessible to the building. If appropriate, implement a "buddy system" in the evening or late night hours, or provide staff members with security escorts to parking areas.

Train employees.

Provide training to employees at the time of hire and at regular intervals thereafter. Training should address:

  • The company's zero-tolerance policy and the types of conduct covered by the policy.
  • The specific hazards of the job and worksite.
  • Risk factors that can cause or contribute to threats and violence.
  • Protecting oneself and co-workers, including the proper use of security measures and other controls.
  • Reporting threats and violence.
  • Where appropriate, recognizing, managing, and diffusing hostile, aggressive behavior.
  • The consequences for violating the policy.

Address weapons in the workplace.

Employers generally have the right to prohibit employees from carrying weapons in the workplace, even if the employee has a concealed or open-carry weapon permit. In some states, however, employees are allowed to store and transport their lawfully-possessed firearms in their locked personal vehicles on company parking lots. Review your state law to ensure your weapons policies are compliant. Note: Several states require employers to post notices before banning weapons in the workplace.

Take all complaints seriously.

Make sure you take all complaints about violence or threats of violence seriously by launching a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation and taking effective corrective action.

Promote a culture of support.

Clearly communicate the importance of violence prevention and that the company prohibits retaliation against an individual for reporting suspected workplace violence. Assure employees that you will maintain confidentiality of all incidents, to the extent possible, and will discuss cases only with those who need to know (such as law enforcement). After an incident, offer counseling and other services to victimized employees and witnesses.

Understand leave and nondiscrimination requirements.

Many jurisdictions have enacted laws that require employers to provide job-protected leave to employees who are victims of violence, whether it occurs during work hours or outside of work hours. Check your state and local laws to ensure compliance. Additionally, review the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)'s guidance pertaining to protections for applicants and employees who experience domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. The guidance provides examples of employment decisions that may violate federal nondiscrimination laws.


Tailor your workplace violence prevention program to the specific needs of your business and draw upon the resources available to you in the community, including law-enforcement expertise.


    Most Popular

    HR{preneur}® - A podcast for small businesses. Listen now!