Workplace Violence: Assessing the Risk and Dealing with the Consequences

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

Employers today are faced with the daunting task of trying to root out workplace violence before it occurs for both legal and basic human safety reasons. In addition to the basic moral and human desire to keep workers safe from harm, legal responsibilities (including recent Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) directives) make violence prevention and intervention a top priority.


Workplace violence can be divided into four major categories, each of which includes a violent act by an individual against a company’s employee(s):

Criminal Intent. The agent has no legitimate relationship to the workplace and enters the workplace to commit a criminal act (i.e., robbery). Most recent statistics report that this represents the largest number of workplace violence incidents.

Customer/Client/Patient Violence. The agent is either the recipient or the object of a service provided by the affected workplace or the victim. This type includes current and former patients, clients, customers, passengers, criminal suspects, and prisoners.

Co-Worker Violence. The agent has an employment-related involvement with the workplace. Usually this involves an assault or other violent act by a current or former employee toward a co-worker, supervisor, or manager.

Personal Relationship. The agent has no direct relationship to the workplace but typically is a current or former spouse, lover, relative, or friend of an employee.

While most employment policies focus on co-worker violence by prohibiting weapons, aggressive behavior, and hate-based speech in the workplace, the challenge for employers is broader than that. Understanding how to avoid the risk of all four types of behavior is paramount for a safe and effective workplace.


How concerned should an employer be about the risk of violence in the workplace? The answer lies in an assessment of several relevant factors such as the industry, geographic location, and workforce involved as well as whether previous incidents of violence have occurred or been threatened. Employers should consider researching prior violent events in the particular industry, as well as surrounding businesses and competitors, by contacting local law enforcement authorities for more information about violence occurring at or near the workplace.

Employers also should ask themselves the following questions and act upon the responses:

  • Are reception and work areas designed to prevent unauthorized entry?
  • Are entrances and exits well marked?
  • Is there a system to alert employees of intruders?
  • Where are the places of concealment, including stairwells and elevators, and do they include emergency telephones or call buttons?
  • Does each work area include an adequate escape route?
  • Are employee restrooms locked or separate from public use?
  • Does the workplace include an emergency area where protection is available?


The steps employers must take to prevent violence in the workplace depend in large part on the risk factors present in the particular workplace. There are, however, some preventive measures that employers should implement in all workplaces:

  • Develop a workplace violence policy.
  • Reduce workplace design risks.
  • Train managers and supervisors to be observant and to know how to react to violent incidents.
  • Establish and train a Crisis Management Team that includes the human resources (HR) department, the legal department, security, and risk management.
  • Educate employees on effectively reporting concerns.


Sometimes, in spite of preventive planning, an incident of violence occurs. Even after the incident is over, the consequences remain and can include an increase in absenteeism, an increase in employee turnover, loss of productivity, and business interruption. Nevertheless, with proper crisis management methods and post-incident intervention, an organization can recover from and decrease the negative fallout from an incident. There are several areas to consider when getting a workplace back on track after a critical incident.

A. Security

After an incident occurs, it is imperative to reinforce security precautions with all personnel. Frequently, an organization has adequate physical/site security, but measures have been disregarded or disabled by employees.  (Examples can include a locked security door which an employee propped open with a chair while on a break to smoke a cigarette or the receptionist who buzzes in an individual even without identification because he or she looks familiar.) With the heightened awareness following a critical incident, personnel will be more likely to hear and heed warnings against these types of security breaches.

B. Human Resources

As soon after the removal of the threat as possible, HR should schedule Critical Incident Stress Debriefings (CISD). CISDs are not therapy sessions but rather “psycho-educational” meetings. The intent is to educate employees on what to expect as a result of the trauma. There are three main phases of a CISD:

  • Information. Employees are given as much information about the incident as possible to help decrease the number of rumors and myths that follow many traumatic incidents.
  • Venting and Validation. Employees are encouraged to share fears, concerns, and other feelings. Once these emotions are expressed, they are validated, which serves to reduce anxiety in an organization and minimize the need to talk about the incident when employees should be working.
  • Prediction and Preparation. The facilitator helps the employees understand what to expect next. For example, who may be questioned during the police investigation, etc.


On September 8, 2011, OSHA issued an enforcement directive for the purposes of investigating and dealing with incidents of workplace violence. The directive will be used by OSHA’s district supervisors and area directors in determining whether or not to conduct an investigation into allegations of workplace violence and includes the following:

  • Identification of high-risk industries susceptible to workplace violence;
  • Various methods of abatement available to employers in workplace violence situations;
  • An expanded definition of “workplace violence” that includes threats of assaults, as well as actual assaults;
  • A list of acceptable mechanisms available to employers to minimize or eliminate violence;
  • Various risk factors that may indicate the potential for workplace violence; and
  • Inspection procedures that will be followed by OSHA’s compliance officers while conducting inspections;

The extent and manner in which workplace violence is managed by an employer will directly affect its ability to defend against OSHA citations and other potential civil or criminal proceedings related to such incidents.

For more blog posts by Maria Greco Danaher, please visit her at Employment Law Matters.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. | Attorney Advertising

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