When is a Company Responsible for Workplace Violence?


In America nearly two million people report assaults at work each year. While murder gains the biggest headlines, it is actually only the smallest tip of the iceberg. It is the huge volume of physical and verbal violence under the surface that costs our economy in both human and financial terms. Employers of all sizes, both public and private, must address these issues and set plans in place before a problem occurs.


Who is at risk?

Any job that involves extensive dealings with the public, particularly the retail and service sectors are going to be at greatest risk for workplace anger. Additionally, employees in especially bureaucratic organizations where little attention is given to employee satisfaction may be at higher risk.


Drugs and alcohol

Drugs and alcohol could be ruled out as a factor in only 27 percent of workplace violence incidents. These addictions are a major issue for our workforce today. In fact, one-third of employees in our country are aware of drug sales in their workplace. These drug addictions can increase both the economic and emotional stress in someone’s life, leading to instability and poor decision making.


While 75 percent of our workforce is employed in small businesses, too few of these small employers have established drug-free workplace programs to assist their employees. The savings that result from a healthier, more productive workforce far outweigh the cost of initiating and maintaining a drug free workplace program. Services are available locally to assist with the paperwork and can make the process quite simple.


Economic triggers

Economic problems can prevent companies from dealing with workplace anger and violence issues and also stirs more violent urges in employees who may be facing other difficulties in their lives. With layoffs and hiring freezes, employees are asked to do more work without increases in benefits. The emotional and economic stress this creates is a natural stimulus for workplace anger. Often, as companies look for ways to cut costs, employee training and sensitivity programs may be the first to go.


Threats and intimidation

Managers must proactively deal with any threats or intimidation, no matter how small or in what form. Ignoring these behaviors implies acceptance and can lead to increasing problems later. Your company may lose a star employee today, but the short-term cost will be less than the risk of the long-term escalation in anger, violence, and company liability.


What can you do in your business?

The most important step for a manager or supervisor is to recognize the warning signs of problems in an employee’s life. Signs of addictions, financial difficulties, increased stress or minor altercations can be important clues. If you see these potential problems in your employees, take action. Get that person aside where you can talk freely, allow them to completely air their concerns and listen actively. Show the employee you truly care about their issues and are attempting to understand. Be attentive during the conversation, ask probing questions and repeat back what they’ve said to ensure that you understand their feelings. Avoid confrontation. Don’t be accusatory or judgmental when asking questions or repeating your understanding of the problem. Finally, include the employee in developing the solution and move toward a win-win solution.

In most cases, truly listening to a disgruntled employee and making an earnest effort to understand their concern will go the furthest in diffusing a tense situation. However, if the problem is too big for you to handle, get help! If your company has access to an employee assistance program, take advantage of those resources. Otherwise, there are community resources that can assist in these situations.

Don’t be an ostrich! Those companies that fail to plan for these incidents and ignore the warning signs that are given will face increasing liability in the future. Today’s business owners and supervisors cannot claim ignorance on the issues of workplace violence. We see the incidents in our media everyday and future juries will be less sympathetic to employers who ignored the warning signs. Deal with the little problems today, and your company is less likely to face big problems down the road.

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