Understanding and Minimizing Workplace Violence

A customer intentionally disrupts a shop display during an argument with an employee. Two co-workers with a history of conflict get into an altercation; one accuses the other of bullying. The former spouse of an employee continues to call him at work and leaves harassing messages. What do all of these situations have in common? They are all examples of workplace violence.

According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, workplace violence is defined as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening behavior that occurs in a work setting. Incidents, which range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide, can involve employees as well as business clients, customers, and other visitors.[1]

Steve Deig, a technical director in the Risk Control Services group for Liberty Mutual Insurance, states, “Keeping employees, customers, and visitors safe is a priority for any business. While slips and falls may be more top of mind when it comes to workplace exposures, violence is a real threat and affects businesses of all kinds.” In fact, nearly 2 million workers in the United States report being victims of workplace violence every year.[1]

Potential Employer Liability

“Any business can face liability as a result of workplace violence,” says Mark Rouillard, senior referral underwriter for general liability at Liberty Mutual. “A plaintiff’s attorney can argue that a property owner or business has a duty to patrons, visitors, and employees to provide a workplace that is free from the risk of violence. Therefore, an employer who does not take reasonable steps to prevent or control this hazard may be held liable by a jury.”

While workers compensation coverage typically protects employers against lawsuits brought by employees, there are many other areas where a company may be vulnerable. Understanding your risk can help you identify and prioritize actions needed to better safeguard your business. Consider the following examples.

Vicarious liability: An employee violates company policy and detains a suspected shoplifter. While vigorously restraining the suspect, the employee knocks over and injures a nearby customer. The employer could be held liable for the employee’s actions and the customer’s injuries.

Negligent hiring liability: During an at-home service call, a newly hired employee steals money and injures the customer. The employer did not perform a background check, and the employee’s record indicates several recent criminal larceny convictions. A court could find that the employer failed to exercise reasonable care in selecting the employee and, therefore, others were exposed to unreasonable risk.

Premises liability: After making a purchase, a customer is assaulted and robbed while walking to his vehicle. Several of the store’s parking lot lights are not working, and a section of the security fence is damaged. By not having adequate lighting and fencing in place, the employer did not take appropriate measures to keep its premises safe.

These are just a few examples of how a business could be liable for workplace violence incidents. Consult with your legal counsel to determine how these or other exposures apply to your business’s operation.

Mitigating the Risk

There are several actions that employers should take to mitigate the risk of workplace violence. To minimize the chance that employees, customers, and others will be exposed to a violent incident, Deig suggests that businesses:

  1. Adopt a zero-tolerance policy: Make it very clear to employees that any type of violence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. The policy should communicate that all acts and threats of violence will be taken seriously, promptly investigated, and documented. Anyone in violation of the policy is subject to disciplinary action, including termination. Consider discussing the policy as part of new hire orientation/training or incorporating it into your employee handbook or manual.
  2. Establish consistent hiring and termination policies: For hiring, conduct background checks, request that applicants disclose prior employment history and convictions (if legally permissible), and follow up with provided references. At the end of employment, collect keys, badges, or other items that identify the individual as an employee. Consider changing security codes, combinations, keypads, and locks. Escort the individual off the premises immediately after notice and do not allow the individual to return. Review your hiring and termination criteria with legal counsel to ensure they are appropriate.
  3. Make counseling services available: As a preventive measure, employee assistance programs or community counseling services can offer support to troubled employees. After a violent incident, these services can provide crisis management support and grief counseling to those affected.
  4. Educate and train employees about workplace violence: Train all employees, including frontline workers, supervisors, and managers, on how to recognize problematic behavior and warning signs and how to respond if they are subject to or witness workplace violence.
  5. Install proper security safeguards: Maintaining physical control of a property can be an effective way to prevent workplace violence. Consider video surveillance and alarm systems; locks, fences, and gates; extra lighting; and keycards or electronic entry controls. Train employees on proper use, and inspect safeguards frequently to identify gaps.
  6. Develop an emergency response plan: The plan should detail how to respond to an emergency and cover areas such as how to report incidents, evacuation procedures, contact information for those who should be notified after an emergency, and procedures for managing the media. Establish and maintain relationships with local police and fire stations, and make them aware of your plan.

Your insurance provider can offer guidance and resources on ways to help safeguard your business against workplace violence and how to respond in the event of a threat. By being prepared, you will be better able to minimize your business’s risk while also providing a safe establishment for your employees and customers.

[1]Safety and Health Topics: Workplace Violence, Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Retrieved June 17, 2014, from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/workplaceviolence/

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The illustrations, instructions, and principles in this material are general in scope and, to the best of our knowledge, current at the time of publication. No attempt has been made to interpret any referenced codes, standards, or regulations nor to identify all potential risks or requirements.