Violence in the Workplace


HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Monday, July 26, 2021

Understanding the threat of workplace violence and taking steps to mitigate and tackle this problem is a crucial responsibility for every employer.

Article 6 Minutes
Violence in the Workplace

One of the most important responsibilities any employer has is to keep people safe in the workplace. That means adhering to good health and safety practices, but it also means being aware of and preparing for certain risks that could be a danger to your employees, such as the threat of workplace violence.

As far as the HR department is concerned, protecting employees and providing a secure, comfortable working environment where people can get on with their jobs without worrying about the threat of violence or intimidation should always be priority number one.

It's crucial, therefore, to make sure you have clear policies and strategies in this area, particularly with respect to what constitutes workplace violence, how you can preempt potentially dangerous incidents and how the business manages these events when they do occur.

What is workplace violence?

When thinking about these sorts of critical HR issues, it's beneficial to go back to basics and make sure you have a clear and unequivocal understanding of what the umbrella terms mean.

Workplace violence is defined as "any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work", according to the UK's Health and Safety Executive.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration gives the following definition:

Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.


It's worth noting that both of these descriptions include references to intimidation and threats, which are just as (if not more) likely to be verbal as physical. As a result, employers' understanding and treatment of the issue of workplace violence needs to go beyond physical assaults and incidents where an employee sustains some sort of bodily harm. It's vital that you provide protection for your workers against physical violence, but you also need to be aware of the risks posed by verbal attacks and threatening behavior.

Workplace violence can also come in different categories, which have been defined by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health as:

  • Criminal intent: Where the perpetrator has no legitimate connection to the business or its employees. This type of violence is usually the result of another crime being committed, such as robbery, shoplifting or trespassing.
  • Customer/client: Where someone shows aggressive or violent behavior while being served by the business.
  • Worker on worker: Where an employee (past or present) attacks or threatens another member of the workforce.
  • Personal relationship: Where a perpetrator who usually doesn't have a relationship with the business is aggressive or violent towards one of your employees. This might include victims of domestic violence being attacked or threatened at work.

What can cause violence in the workplace?

Since prevention is always better than cure, one of the most important things any employer can do on the issue of workplace violence is to consider the potential causes of this problem and look at ways to manage them.

As noted above, one potential cause of violence on your premises is when another crime has taken place. If a trespasser manages to gain entry to your site and attempts to steal something, for example, there could be a risk of your employees being threatened or physically harmed while the crime is being committed.

When it comes to workplace violence involving people connected to the business - aggression between co-workers or between clients and staff, for example - there are various possible causes to look out for.

For instance, if the business is experiencing financial difficulties, employees might feel under a lot of pressure to perform and could also be worried about job security. This could lead to a more tense and volatile workplace atmosphere, which in turn is likely to increase the risk of violent incidents between workers.

The risk of workplace violence is always likely to increase when people are experiencing high levels of stress or heightened emotions or they're facing personal difficulties outside work. This is one of several reasons why it's important to have a clear strategy to manage mental health in the workplace.

The impact on individuals

First and foremost, violence in the workplace poses a physical danger to your employees. Someone who is injured in a violent act could be left with long-term or even permanent consequences, which in severe cases could affect their ability to do their job or go about their daily lives.

Extreme events - an armed robbery targeting a business that handles valuable goods, for example - create the ultimate risk: someone losing their life.

As well as the obvious impact on the individuals involved, workplace violence can have far-reaching consequences for other members of the workforce who may have witnessed the event or the loved ones of victims.

In the long term, being involved in a violent incident could have lasting repercussions for people's mental health. Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety are among the issues that could arise as a result of violence in the workplace.

The impact on the company

Protecting your workforce should always be the top priority, but it's also important to be aware of how workplace violence can have consequences for the business.

There are various possible financial implications of violent incidents, such as:

  • Financial losses resulting from theft or burglary
  • Lost revenue if the workplace has to close
  • Higher insurance premiums and healthcare costs
  • Worker compensation payments
  • Litigation costs

You might also need to think about wider issues such as how instances of violence between co-workers at your business could impact your employer brand and make it harder for you to attract qualified staff in the future.

How HR can manage workplace violence

To start with, it's vital to outline a clear zero-tolerance attitude towards workplace violence in your company policies. Make sure all employees have access to information detailing how the business will respond to violent or aggressive behavior and what sort of disciplinary procedures are in place to deal with it.

Learn more: Employee Discipline: What Every HR Manager Needs to Know

Addressing this issue in your policies will also enable you to give workers information about how they should conduct themselves in a situation that could turn violent. For instance, you could recommend:

  • Taking every situation seriously and following precautions to keep themselves and others safe
  • Avoiding confrontation
  • Reporting any examples of violent or threatening behavior

Being aware of the most common causes of workplace violence will help you take another vital step in preventing it: looking out for early warning signs.

These might include:

  • Bullying or threatening behavior
  • Workers showing signs of paranoia or anxiety around their colleagues
  • Employees coming to their managers to discuss serious concerns relating to their personal lives, such as an abusive or violent relationship
  • Sudden deteriorations in work habits or behavior, such as people turning up late, withdrawing from social contact, using alcohol or drugs at work, or overreacting to criticism or performance evaluations

Training can play a particularly important role in enabling a business-wide approach that reduces the risk of workplace violence. Communication and empathy training, for example, can help staff develop the skills required to talk through problems and find constructive solutions to challenging situations that could otherwise escalate and create conflict.

It's also important for managers to be able to talk to employees who are experiencing personal difficulties in an understanding, empathetic way. Furthermore, company leaders who have strong communication skills will be better-placed to handle potentially violent situations.

Like many business challenges and scenarios, workplace violence is easier to predict and manage if your workforce - from senior managers to junior staff - have been provided with adequate resources, knowledge and training.

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