Violence in the Workplace-A growing problem in America

By: Jason B. Morris, President

Background Information Services, Inc.





Workplace violence is a daily occupational risk and hazard for many workers in today’s society.  Every year there are over one million incidents of workplace violence in the United States. 


Recently this issue has been painted all over the media. The attention has been centered on a few horrific incidents.  Compared to the overall majority of occurrences these events represent only a tiny example of a growing problem.  Too often, workplace violence is regarded as part of the job and very little, if anything, is done to eliminate it.  The solutions to these problems are based on addressing the institutional and structural issues, rather than blaming workers for a hazard they are not responsible for creating.




Workplace violence began generating concern among public and private sector organizations in the United States in 1990, and the awareness has increased steadily.  While perceived as a threat to employees, no statistical information existed to allow the proactive development of prevention programs and policies.


At that time, statistics maintained by governmental agencies such as OSHA and state-level programs tracked employees that were injured or killed in the workplace, but provided no break down of deaths or injuries that were caused by current or former employees.


In September 1993, the Chicago-based National Safe Workplace Institute released a study pegging the cost of workplace violence at $4.2 billion annually.  They estimated that in 1992, over 111,000 violent incidents were committed in work environments, resulting in 750 deaths.  In recent years this number has grown.


In 1994 the Workplace Violence Research Institute conducted a study.  The institute interviewed more than 600 professionals in various professions affected by workplace violence.  The incidents were divided into one of five categories: fatalities, rapes, aggravated assaults, threats, and acts of harassment.  The results of the project showed that workplace violence actually resulted in a $36 billion annual loss.




It is important to note that workplace violence not only affects co-workers but also customers.  The following are some good examples:







The Causes


There are many causes of Workplace violence including economic, societal, psychological, and organizations issues. 


The economic causes are an over-stressed population, downsizing or re-organizing departments, massive layoffs, growth of technology, recession, massive mergers, post modernism and unemployment.


 Many people have the opinion that the societal causes of workplace violence are many; a changing society, violence on television and in the movies, music, violence as an accepted means of problem solving, not to mention the accessibility of handguns. 


Physiological causes of workplace violence may also be the result of employees who have experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse from childhood.  Employees do bring their “baggage” into the workplace. 


The role that organizations play in workplace violence include; organizational structure, management style such as authoritarian or autocratic, polarization between employees and managers, the lack of a forum to address grievances, threats of violence, creativity and new ideas being discouraged. Empowered employees and a voice in the decision-making process are lacking. 


Causes of workplace violence are at the center of the controversy surrounding this issue.  Many individuals in management positions believe disagreeable workers are to blame for workplace violence.  The occasional disgruntled employee who snaps and lashes out at co-workers or employers is presented as the norm.  In response to this stereotype, management has been advised to assess workers and job candidates for their alleged propensity towards violence.  One common practice used to identify possible workplace violence in employees is psychological testing.  These tests can help, but are generally perceived as intrusive and inappropriate.  These tests attempt to reveal which workers may act violently.  Though testing might be a good indicator for some employers, its not enough.


The following is a summary of the principle causes of workplace violence:










Effects of all these factors have made the potential for violence a daily concern in many workplaces.


Many times violence is not reported or recorded for a variety of reasons.  Some violent incidents may be perceived as too minor and are therefore not dealt with.  As well, staff may be reluctant to report violence for fear of being labeled as a problem themselves, or they may fear being blamed for the incident.  Many workers may look at violence as being part of their job; a risk they are expected to endure.  Cases of verbal abuse are often seen as not worth reporting, particularly when the employer is not supportive of the worker’s claim.  For these reasons, the actual statistical extent of violence is not really known. 


Who is at Risk


Potential for violence can exist in any workplace; some however, are at a greater risk due to the people they may encounter.  Employees in the service industry and workers who handle large sums of money are more often at risk for violence.  The greatest risk of violence comes to those who are in the health care field.  These workers who come in direct contact with patients on a daily basis are at the greatest risk for violence.  The social service sector, or workers who are in direct contact with the public, also put themselves in potentially violent situations.  Other workers who may be exposed to violence are: bus drivers, emergency attendants, police officers, institutional attendants, workers in women’s shelters, teachers, insurance compensation clerks, arena workers, letter carriers, security guards, public park officers and any other worker who may work alone.


The frequency of incidents and costs of each incident is high enough to warrant serious attention by company owners and managers.  The US Department of labor’s figure of 1,063 workplace deaths a year translates to an average of three people dying at the workplace each day of the year.  This figure does not account for the innocent people that are caught in the mix.  It is troublesome that at least several hundred people not involved are killed each year as well.


The impact of each incident is overwhelming.  It is often compared to an airplane crash because when something happens, it receives several days of national coverage and creates a fear that disrupts feelings of safety for some time.


Legal Issues


Employers hold liability in all areas of business, both civilly and criminally.  Under the theory of the respondent superior, an employer is vicariously liable for any actions committed by its employees within the scope of their employment.  That is to say the employer can be held liable even if they did nothing wrong.  The employer is liable for actions of the employee when the employee is working, even if the employee is acting against company policy.


Most importantly, employers can be held liable on the grounds of negligent hiring or negligent retention of an employee who has a known propensity for violence.  Employers can and are being held liable for the willful misconduct of their employees, even if the employees’ actions occur outside the scope or place of employment.  This form of liability is defined by the legal theories of negligent hiring and retention.  While these theories are not necessarily new, what is worthy of notice is the increase in negligent hiring and retention claims.  Beginning in the 1980’s, negligent hiring and retention claims have been on a rapid rise.  This rise could be perceived as part of a larger trend as courts continue to show increasing interest in not only determining guilt, but in compensating the victim.  The interest in compensation can lend itself to a search for “deep pockets,” and the offender’s employer is a likely candidate.  According to a study by Liability Consultant’s Inc., a consulting firm specializing in premises liability, the average settlement in these cases is now over $1.6 million.  Such sensational monetary judgments are sure to attract attention among potential plaintiffs and the lawyers eager to try their cases.  As awareness continues to increase, it could be argued that this type of litigation will gain more and more momentum.  More than ever, employers need to clearly understand what negligent hiring and retention is, what responsibilities employers have to create a safe environment through employee selection, and what actions are necessary to reduce the risk of liability and loss. 


The person behind the action


A disgruntled employee may return to his or her former place of employment after being terminated and commit murder or some other violent offense, 25% of these commit suicide after the violent act.  These perpetrators most commonly are disgruntled employees who were terminated, fired, laid off or may have had a “relationship” with another employee. 


Research of over 200 incidents of workplace violence revealed that in each case, the suspect exhibited multiple pre-incident indicators that included the following symptoms. (Research conducted by The Workplace Violence Research Institute)



During post-incident investigations, employees and co-workers in each case stated that they observed one or more of these symptoms but considered them insignificant or just “weird” behavior.  Unfortunately, these employees had not been briefed in symptom recognition of potentially violent behavior, nor given instructions on how to report such information. (WPRI)



The profile of the person behind the action is as follows:





Something must be done to curb workplace violence, employees not only deserve a safe place to work, but in many states government mandates it!  Companies who do not take preventative measures to ensure this open themselves up to liability which include costly litigations.  Setting up company-wide policies and procedures is a great and proven way to curb this epidemic.  When a company has these controls in place, following them will become second nature.  No company or organization can completely prevent or eliminate workplace violence, but following certain procedures and planning programs can reduce the chances of it happening.  Having these plans as part of company policy, and if followed correctly, can save companies billions of dollars in litigation and legal expenses.


1. Before an employee is hired:  Notify all applicants and perspective employees that a complete background investigation will be conducted. (See for FCRA regulations)   There is no safer way to curb workplace violence.  Conducting a thorough background check through an accredited pre-employment screening agency is very important.  By conducting a background check companies may find out: history of violence and incarceration, history of drug use, abuse, negligence, and other derogatory information.  By taking it a step further and verifying past employment companies may also find: a lapse in their employment history including violence at another workplace.  This may have never been reported, the employee may have been terminated, and your applicant may never use them as a reference.  A good pre-employment screening company will find holes in an application and/or resume.  Included with this type of screening should also include: a credit check, DMV check and a public records search.


2.  Develop a company wide memorandum and update company polices and employee handbooks:  Background checks are a necessary tool for incoming employees, but it doesn’t end there.  Employees must know that violating company policy especially when it comes to violence or violent behavior WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.    If an employee shows any signs,  a meeting with a superior should be initiated.  Any acts of aggression towards co-workers, clients and/or customers and the individual will be terminated and the authorities will be contacted.  By developing this “zero tolerance”  policy you are eliminating the problem before it becomes disastrous.  Your employees should have a solid definition of what constitutes workplace violence and aggression.



·         Any act which may physically or mentally harm another

·         Behavior indicating violence

·         Threats to harm another or endanger others

·         Threats to destroy property


3.  Develop a committee to deal with these issues:     A committee should be created to deal with these issues.  Laws and policies can change daily and it should be this committee’s job to stay up to date in addition to addressing issues within its own workplace.  This committee should include:


·         The senior “on-site” official (in a factory, a foreman should be appointed)

·         HR manager

·         The company’s legal staff or a representative from it

·         Head of Security or Loss Prevention

·         Someone who deals with sociological issues

·         If available a psychologist


This committee should oversee all issues dealing with in-house workplace violence and pre-employment screening.   At minimum, a quarterly memo should be provided to all employees.


1.       Make Health and Wellness a company priority.

2.       Take good security measures.

3.       Conduct continuing employee evaluations.

4.       Establish a confidential company hotline.

5.       Conduct a yearly review of all procedures.

6.       Develop a safe termination process:  The single biggest trigger of attacks is after the employee is terminated.  How the firing is done can make a big difference between a routine event and a crisis.  An employee losing their job can be a traumatic experience, making the person feel good about it, which can be difficult, can make all the difference in the world.




In today’s society no company is immune from the threat of workplace violence; prudent, proactive measures can reduce the likelihood of a tragedy and reduce the risk to your business.  There is evidence to support the fact that the workplace is becoming the least desirable place to be.  Knowing and understanding that the problem is there and that it can happen to any company is key, it can happen, even to your company.  Workplace violence doesn’t end just by altering employees’ behavior but also by altering the structure and nature of work.  Taking the necessary steps can decrease your likelihood of an incident. It is important to recognize that aggression and violence is an inherently human characteristic, but it should never be tolerated or condoned in a place of work.