How to Address Violence in the Workplace

Author: Melissa Gonzalez Boyce, XpertHR Legal Editor

Employees are entitled to a safe work environment. Under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers are legally required to provide a workplace free from recognized health and safety hazards. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) interprets this clause to include the responsibility to prevent harm to employees from workplace violence.

The risk of violence in the workplace undoubtedly affects employee's safety, productivity and morale. Although there are no guarantees that an employer can prevent and stop all acts of violence, an employer should nonetheless take certain measures to decrease the likelihood of threatening and violent behavior as well as increase the chances of responding effectively to such an incident.

Step 1: Establish a Workplace Violence Policy

Setting expectations for how an employer handles violence in the workplace begins with developing comprehensive workplace violence policy and procedures. An employer must stress to employees that the policy is intended for their protection and to ensure a safe work environment. In addition, the policy serves to advise employees of what they should do in the event of a threatening or violent incident. An employer should include the following points in a workplace violence policy:

Definition of workplace violence. The policy should include a definition of what is considered workplace violence, who is covered (e.g., employees, visitor, customer) and a list of illustrative examples of prohibited behavior, including intimidation, bullying and domestic violence.

Specific language. Employers should write the policy in a clear and concise manner. However, being concise does not necessarily mean making the message short, but being direct and specific in highlighting all pertinent information. By writing the policy in this style, there is nothing left to personal interpretation. For example, the policy should provide a description of objects that are considered prohibited weapons.

Reporting procedure. The policy should clearly state what the employer expects the employee to do should a violence incident take place. A policy should, therefore, include an anonymous reporting structure so that employees feel comfortable reporting suspicious or violent behavior. In addition, a policy should designate individuals (e.g., supervisor, HR) to whom such behavior can be reported in addition to alternative individuals in the event the employee does not feel comfortable with one of those designated. A policy should also include a statement that reflects the employer's commitment to prevent retaliation against employees who report in good faith. Above all, employees should always be made to feel confident in mitigating a situation, escalating a suspicion or an actual incident to management or calling law enforcement.

Enforcement clause. The policy should include an enforcement clause that is consistent with existing personnel policies, making it clear that there is "zero tolerance" for violence in the workplace and that anything less than a safe and secure workplace will not be tolerated. The clause should be very specific and use clear communication that violence in the workplace will result in immediate termination.

In addition, a workplace violence policy should include a statement of the employer's commitment to promptly investigate all reports of suspicious and threatening behavior and/or threats of violence.

An employer should review the policy with all employees at every level to ensure understanding, including the potential consequences of violating the policy, e.g., discipline or termination. In addition, an employer should distribute the policy in the same manner as the company's other policies and procedures. For example, an employer may include the policy in the employee handbook or post it on the company's intranet.

Step 2: Implement an Emergency Action Plan

An emergency action plan (EAP) is the foundation of a coordinated workplace response that better prepares and protects an employer as well as its employees in the event of an emergency. An EAP should address responses to various events, such as a fire or violent incident, and contain procedures to follow. In creating an EAP, an employer should seek the input of several stakeholders, including, but not limited to, representatives from senior management, HR, facility/property owners, in-house and/or outside legal counsel, security and local law enforcement and/or emergency responders.

An EAP should designate a management response team (MRT), which should include a representative from management, HR, security and in-house counsel. Depending on the nature and location of the business, an employer may also find it appropriate to include representatives from local law enforcement, outside counsel and threat assessment and/or risk management professionals. Members of the MRT are typically tasked with developing the components of an EAP that will enable the employer to handle an incident of violence in the workplace.

In order to be effective, an EAP should include the following:

  • A method for reporting different types of emergencies, e.g., bomb threats, active shooters, fires;
  • An evacuation policy and procedure;
  • Emergency escape procedures and route assignments, including floor plans and identification of designated safe areas;
  • Contact information for and responsibilities of individuals to be contacted under the EAP;
  • Information concerning local hospitals, including name, telephone number and distance from the workplace;
  • The creation of a "communication tree" used to inform employees of danger by alarms, emails, calls and texts;
  • A plan on how to notify families during and after the incident;
  • Guidance on how to address media communications; and
  • An emergency notification system to alert various individuals of an emergency, including:
    • Individuals at remote locations near the premises;
    • Local law enforcement; and
    • Local hospitals.

It is also critical that managers and employees are trained in how to communicate during a violent situation as well as how to evacuate employees from the premises, if necessary. Any communication should be made in plain English and in a uniform and agreed upon language by management, HR, facility managers, security (if any), local law enforcement and other stakeholders.

An employer should also make sure that the needs of individuals with disabilities or access and functional issues who may require assistance during an evacuation or shelter-in-place are addressed in an EAP. For example, an employer should:

  • Ask, but not require, employees to self-identify whether they may need assistance and the type(s) of assistance needed;
  • Create a customized plan for an employee who self-identifies that covers the assistance required, the name of the person(s) volunteering to assist, accountability protocol, the type of equipment required (if any) and the evacuation route from the assigned work space; and
  • Ensure employees with self-identified assistance needs can be accounted for during and after an incident.

An employer should review the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to ensure it complies with provisions related to disability-related inquiries and reasonable accommodations.

In addition, notifications of an emergency should be made in a variety of formats so that they are accessible to persons with special needs. For example, visual alerts (e.g., flashing lights) are only useful if a person can see them; auditory aids and cues (e.g., sirens) are only useful if a person can hear them. An employer should consider implementing emergency signals that have both visual and audio components, vibrating alerts and/or signs with text and pictures depicting emergency messages. This way, the employer can ensure it covers employees and visitors who may be:

  • Deaf or hard of hearing;
  • Blind;
  • Temporarily disabled; or
  • Limited in English proficiency.

The EAP must also ensure emergency exits are accessible for those with limited mobility.

An employer must make all employees, including new hires, aware of the EAP and the pertinent information for safety under emergency situations. Employees should be aware of the types of threats and hazards possible, as well as individual roles and responsible parties under the plan.

At the minimum, an employer must make every employee aware of evacuation and shelter procedures, as well as the methods it will use to notify employees of emergency situations. Employees should also understand how to report emergencies and know the location and purpose of any necessary emergency equipment. It is also important for supervisors or those employees with specific emergency response duties to undergo training for these procedures.

Step 3: Educate and Train Employees

In addition to ensuring that employees fully understand the workplace violence policy, an employer should also be made aware of characteristics and warning signs of potentially violent behavior in an employee, former employee, customer or visitor. Some indicators of potentially violent behavior include:

  • Depression and/or withdrawal;
  • Resistance and overreaction to changes in policies;
  • Increased severe mood swings;
  • Explosive outbursts of anger or rage without provocation;
  • Suicidal indications;
  • Comments about "putting things in order";
  • Empathy with individuals who commit violence; and
  • Increase in solicited comments about firearms, other dangerous weapons and violent crimes.

An employer may also offer training to employees on how to react quickly and effectively in the event of a violent or threatening situation. However, since most employers lack the expertise to conduct the training themselves, they may consider looking to outside resources to help convey messaging and preparing the staff should a violent situation arise.

For example, if the employer chooses to offer active shooter training, it has several options, including seeking assistance from local law enforcement or a private security company. If cost and scheduling conflicts are an issue, an employer may look to videos from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which showcase instructions, including their recommended "Run, Hide, Fight" strategy, in responding in an active shooter incident. In addition, an employer may consider conducting active shooter drills so that employees are better able to retain certain techniques and strategies for responding to and escaping from an active shooter situation. However, considering the nature of the drill, an employer should give employees advance notice that an active shooter drill will be taking place in order to avoid traumatizing or scaring employees.

While there is no requirement of how often training must be conducted, an employer should consider conducting training exercises periodically. An employer should require employees to sign an acknowledgement upon completion of a training session or the receipt of a workplace violence policy.

Step 4: Act Immediately and Appropriately

Every threatening or violent incident is unique, so it is critical to quickly survey the situation and determine what actions are necessary to protect the workplace and those in it before responding in any way. If an EAP has been established, the employer should follow the protocol and take the necessary steps to respond to the unfolding emergency. If the employer believes that other employees are at risk, the employer must alert them in some fashion (e.g., loudspeaker, alarm, text message) so they are aware of the risk and can take the appropriate precautions. Also, an employer should designate an individual in every department or floor to report an emergency or a violent situation to law enforcement.

It is important that an employer not require employees to fight back against a violent individual, but encourage them to respond in the manner they most feel comfortable. For instance, in the event that an individual is threatening others with a firearm, employees should be instructed to escape the facility, run to a safe location and contact law enforcement.

Step 5: Communicate Effectively With the Violent Employee

If some cases (and only when safe to do), an employer representative, such as a supervisor or manager, may choose to directly speak to the threatening or violent individual. When addressing him or her, an employer representative should speak calmly yet phrase any instructions in a direct and clear manner. It is important that no one argues or loses his or her temper when dealing with a violent person.

When possible, any communication with an employee following a violent outburst should be held in a safe place where there is no access to items that could be used as weapons. Because this meeting may be seen as a confrontation, the employee may become violent, so this should be anticipated and planned for accordingly. The meeting should have more than one employer representative in attendance and no one should convey a threatening attitude.

During this conversation, an employer may:

  • Offer to get the employee some help for his or her violent behavior. Assistance could be provided through the employer's EAP or through other mental health services provided by the company's healthcare provider.
  • Explain why the employee's behavior was inappropriate and how it may have violated the employer's workplace violence policy.
  • Clearly and concisely explain the consequences of the action. The employer or a member of HR should explain the violence policy and its enforcement provisions. If this means termination, the employee should be told this and all termination procedures should be strictly followed. If the conduct was mild and the employer feels that it is warranted, it may choose probation until appropriate anger management courses are taken and/or a write-up in the employee's files. However the employer chooses to deal with the employee, the employee should be fully informed at the meeting.

When appropriate, an employee who has exhibited violent behavior should be given an opportunity to explain the reasons for his or her behavior. These responses should be considered and assessed when deciding the potential for further immediate violent behavior. In listening to the employee, it is important to engage in active listening and pay close attention to the employee's body language.

The employer may also establish a time for follow-up communication with the employee. For example, the employer may state "I will contact you at your home in the morning and we will discuss the incident as well as what happens going forward." It is important to honor this commitment and to follow up with the employee as per the agreement upon the employee's exit.

If there is any real threat or risk of further violent behavior or if the initial behavior is very serious, the employee should be removed from the premises. In these cases, law enforcement should be contacted to help remove the employee or for security backup in the event that the employee returns.

Step 6: Plan to Manage the Aftermath

An employer should also consider developing a plan to handle the aftermath of a threatening, violent or potentially violent incident. However, in the event that the incident is serious in nature, law enforcement may designate the area as an active crime scene. If that is the case, an employer must defer to law enforcement and first responders as they investigate and clear the scene. It is important for the employer and law enforcement to discuss the implications for the workplace so that the employer may advise its employees accordingly.

It is important that an employer have a system in place to notify employees' family members during or after a violent incident. If the incident is minor, employees may be able to contact their families directly. However, if the incident is serious, such as an active shooter event, and reunification of loved ones is not possible, providing family members with timely, accurate and relevant information is critical. Before a violent incident, it must also be determined how, when and by whom loved ones will be informed if their loved one is missing or has been injured or killed. This will ensure that families and loved ones receive accurate and timely information in a clear and compassionate way. However, the employer must always remember that law enforcement generally takes the lead on death notifications related to criminal activity.

An employer should also develop a plan to provide counseling or other types of psychological first aid to employees, as an important part of recovery from such a traumatic situation is to treat the emotional side effects of violence and stress. An employer should be prepared in the event employees experience reactions (e.g., physical, psychological, behavioral, spiritual) since some of these reactions may cause enough distress to interfere with adequate coping and daily work activities. An employer should look to its employee assistance program (if available) or reach out to local crisis centers, mental health services and support groups to identify resources that it can utilize in the event of an emergency.

Step 7: Prepare an Incident Report

All instances of violence in the workplace should be followed by an incident report. To begin, the employer should identify and interview any individuals, especially eye witnesses, who may have information relating to the violent incident. The employer should look to identify any warning signs that the violent employee or former employee may have exhibited that may have been missed. In addition, the employer should indicate the actions it took in response to the incident. The report should contain only factual details, not speculation or personal commentary.

An employer should also evaluate the effectiveness of its EAP, identify its successes and failures and define a plan for making improvements to the EAP. These findings should be recorded in the report and shared with management. This is critical so that all are aware of what measures can be taken in the future to improve the process should a similar situation arise.

In the event of a seriously violent and/or threatening incident, law enforcement may be conducting its own investigation and preparing its own report. In these instances, the employer should fully cooperate with law enforcement and not take actions that may impede their investigation.

Step 8: Inform All Levels of Management

All levels of management should be made aware of any and all instances of threatening and violent behavior in the workplace. This is especially important if the employee continues to show signs of potential violence as steps should be taken to protect the workplace and ensure that security protocols are followed properly. If the situation escalates or worsens, all staff should be informed not to allow the employee , former employee or visitor on the premises and be given steps to take if he or she comes back to the workplace and threatens further violence.

Additional Resources

Risk Management - Safety, Health, Security > Workplace Security > Securing Employees

Risk Management - Safety, Health, Security > Employee Health > Mental Health Concerns

How to Prepare for an Active Shooter Event in the Workplace

How to Create a Crisis Management Team

How to Handle a Bomb Threat

Handling Violence in the Workplace - Supervisor Briefing

Workplace Violence Prevention Policy

Prepare for an Act of Violence - Checklist