Managing the Risks of Workplace Violence: Prevention Works

Deb Kirby

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Apr 19, 2022

As workers return to the office, employers need to refocus on workplace safety. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 4,764 workplace fatalities in 2020, which represents the lowest number since 2013. However, as more of us return to the office, we can anticipate that this number will rise. Intentional injuries in the workplace steadily decreased since 2016, with the exception of stabbing incidents. Workplace violence is pervasive with some estimating that workplace violence affects more than half of U.S. organizations.

Workplace Violence: A Definition

The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Agency (OSHA) defines workplace violence as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the worksite.” Workplace violence includes physically violent acts - like assault and homicide – as well as incidents where employees refuse to follow policy, aggressive behavior toward others, and threatening comments directed at co-workers, customers, contractors or visitors.

Unfortunately, workplace violence data is not always clear as reporting metrics and incidence rates for these crimes reference several categories that often overlap and spill over into the workplace. These categories include domestic violence, targeted violence, stalking and bias-motivated hate crimes. Furthermore, institutional record-keeping is not always consistent.

Violence at Work Deeply Impacts People and Businesses

The physical, psychological and financial costs of workplace violence is considerable. According to the BLS, of the 4,764 fatal workplace injuries recorded in the U.S. in 2020, 329 involved intentional injuries inflicted by another person. Medical bills covering physical and psychological support for victims and witnesses, liability expenses, negligence lawsuits and physical site damage can also be extensive. In liability cases where employers did not take proactive, preventive measures under 1996 OSHA guidelines, average jury awards were estimated at more than $3 million per person per incident. Out-of-court settlements averaged $500,000.

Following an incident of workplace violence, recovery can bring a second wave of challenges and indirect costs. For example, employees may exhibit reduced productivity as they move to regain a sense of security and morale. Further losses may result as clients and partners disassociate in response to an organization’s reputational damage, negative publicity, or inability to meet delivery demands.

Workplace Violence Research and Practice

Research and practice have helped to not only increase understanding about workplace violence but also prevent further violent incidents in the workplace. In 2019, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) published a 20-year review of active shooter incidents in the U.S. While shootings are only one type of potential workplace violence, this study reflects how businesses and traditional workplaces are highly represented. According to the FBI’s findings:

  • Between 2000 and 2019, 305 active shooter incidents occurred in the U.S.; 40 incidents occurred in 2020.
  • 45.6 percent of incidents took place in commercial locations.
  • In businesses generally closed to pedestrian traffic, 22 out of 23 shooters were employees or former employees of the company.

Foundational studies, such as the U.S. Secret Service’s Exceptional Case Study Project and the recent U.S. Secret Service Report on Targeted School Violence, have further addressed the thinking and behavior of offenders leading up to an act of planned violence. Targeted violence is rarely a sudden, impulsive act. These studies found that most attackers did not threaten their targets directly, and prior to the incidents, exhibited identifiable behaviors that may have signaled violent intent.

Guided by this understanding, prevention-focused management strategies aim to intervene based upon identifiable behaviors often associated with the early stages of problem behaviors, such as the initial stages of planning an attack or with displays of problematic behavior.

Workplace Violence Prevention Programs Produce Significant Benefits

Workplace violence prevention programs are designed to engage and identify opportunities for early intervention, assist managers and employees who may be in crisis, and enhance employee safety. Taking a proactive approach to workplace violence prevention and implementing a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program with a robust training focus increases workplace and employee security.

Such practices support the early identification of red flags as well as opportunities to intervene before violence occurs. The result is higher employee morale, better productivity, greater cross-functional collaboration and information sharing, and uninterrupted business operations. An effective workplace violence prevention program also results in stronger enterprise risk management and decreased liability resulting from a reduction in workplace violence incidents.

Core Elements of an Effective Workplace Violence Prevention Program

While it is required by law in some industries and countries, establishing an effective workplace violence prevention and intervention program has become standard, good practice for corporations globally. These programs generally include the following components, each of which are part of a systemic approach to reducing workplace violence.

  • Development of policies that guide and inform actions, including issues from reporting to privacy regulations
  • Established procedures and guidelines that help implement policy goals
  • Cross-functional, collaborative threat assessment and management focus on prevention, intervention, crisis response, and recovery
  • Role-based, training and awareness of policies, procedures, and guidelines across the organization, including general workforce, supervisors, managers, and threat assessment team members

Critical Importance of Threat Assessment Teams

Strong workplace violence prevention programs assess all threats to ensure they are appropriately handled. Individuals who demonstrate a clear intent to cause harm – either through actions, verbal threats or other communicated means –are often at high risk for engaging in threat activity. The challenge for employers is deciding when aggressive behaviors pose a threat to the workplace.

When supported by a robust program, threat assessment teams are widely recognized as the most effective means for determining whether the individual poses a true threat of harm. These teams, when appropriately trained, evaluate the evidence and assess whether an individual is on a pathway to violence. Conducting threat assessments helps organizations separate those who actually pose a threat from those who make a threat or engage in other inappropriate behavior.

Moreover, using a multi-disciplinary behavioral threat assessment team can save lives. This team might be composed of representatives from HR, security, legal, and management as well as external specialists in law enforcement, mental health, and targeted violence. However, merely establishing a team does not establish an organization’s ability to help prevent targeted violence.

It is critically important that these team members receive specific training in their respective team roles and responsibilities as well as in the principles of behavioral threat assessment, warning signs, and the importance of information sharing, among other topics. Although many companies and government agencies have established threat assessment teams, their team members often lack the training, skills and strategies needed to effectively evaluate threats.

The Goal Is Prevention Not Arrest

Threat assessment teams are charged with gathering and assessing information about individuals who may have the interest, motive, intention, and capability of violence toward another. Their purpose is not necessarily to facilitate a charge, arrest, or conviction but instead develop and implement a plan to monitor the individual and intervene, if appropriate. We know that arrest is not always a deterrent. The end goal is to reduce propensity for violence and mitigate the threat.

Behavioral threat assessments include a heavy focus on the social networks of the individual of concern. A diverse threat assessment team examines the individual’s family ties, work relationships, social media presence, role in the community, criminal justice interactions, mental health and social service engagements. Although arrests and convictions may occur in response to threats in the workplace, a coordinated systematic approach to assessing and managing individuals who may pose a threat of violence is the best opportunity to prevent violence in the long-term.

Risks Can Be Managed and Mitigated

Prevention works. With an effective, multi-disciplinary threat assessment team in place, organizations can identify individuals of concern, gather and assess information, and manage risk. When implemented, these nuanced and intricate methods can save lives, lower risk, and support stable and productive workplaces.

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About the author

Debra K. Kirby
Debra brings command experience in patrol operations, investigations, organized crime, law enforcement training, policy development, data-led policing and internal affairs with an acute focus on integrity systems, covert operations and the need for strong accountability practices in support of operational priorities.