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Questions—And Answers

HR’s Role in Preventing Workplace Violence
Lynn D. Lieber

According to the US Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) Bureau of Labor Statistics’s (BLS’s) recently published fact sheet, workplace shootings account for roughly 10 percent of all work-related deaths per annum in the United States. In 2009, 12 percent of all work-related deaths were homicides, out of the total 18 percent classified under the assaults and violent acts category.1 Even more alarming is the fact that workplace homicides are now the second-highest cause of work-related deaths in United States, trailing only transportation fatalities such as workers killed in highway accidents. Surprisingly, the average retail employee is more likely to be shot fatally by a coworker than a construction worker is to fall to his death or be killed by operating heavy equipment.2 Sales and related occupations accounted for 26 percent of decedents in shootings. Most shootings occurred in the private sector (86 percent); 14 percent of shootings occurred in government. Of the shootings within the private sector, 88 percent occurred within service-providing industries, mostly in trade, transportation, and utilities.3 Employers’ lack of recognition and prevention of workplace violence is alarming. Over 70 percent of US workplaces have no formal program or policy that addresses workplace violence. Of the 30 percent of workplaces in the United States that had any type of formal workplace violence policy, only 44 percent have a policy to address domestic violence in the workplace. Only 4 percent of all establishments train employees on domestic violence and its impact on the workplace.4

© 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley Online Library ( DOI 10.1002/ert.20325


Organizations 84 Employment Relations Today Lynn D. in eight of the ten cases analyzed. slow slide. “Most of the killers ‘spiraled down a long.6 Despite evidence that most killers gave multiple signs that they were in trouble. and the troubling intersection of domestic violence with workplace violence and immediate. Another common misconception is that perpetrators of workplace violence just suddenly “snap” one day and go on a reckless rampage. IS YOUR ORGANIZATION AT HEIGHTENED RISK? “It could never happen here. A violent outburst is much more often the result of a “slow burn”—an accumulation of unresolved personal problems or multiple stress factors.Employment Relations Today This column addresses questions related to workplace violence that are often overlooked or misunderstood by employers. making specific threats and showing coworkers weapons at work. This article is intended to alert HR professionals to the risks of workplace violence at their organization. A New York Times study of 100 rampage murders concluded. With proper training and well-implemented policies and procedures. Those who commit violent acts often plan and prepare their attacks with great precision. while also providing proactive steps HR professionals can take now to avoid inappropriate workplace aggression that can lead up to workplace violence. situations can be identified and resolved before they end in physical violence or tragedy. Lieber DOI 10.’”5 According to a USA Today series on workplace violence.7 WHAT ARE THE WARNING SIGNS OF WORKPLACE VIOLENCE? Most cases of full-fledged acts of workplace violence start with inappropriate workplace aggression—any action or inaction that is intended to cause harm to an organization or an individual in the workplace. the victims are targeted because the perpetrator believes them to be responsible for their current difficulties. Many factors contribute to violent outbursts. In many cases. killers forewarned of the impending attack. management consistently fails to take reports from concerned employees seriously or implement extra precautions. the victims of these attacks are targeted because the perpetrator believes they are responsible for his or her current difficulties. Eruptions of violence at work may stem from a variety of unresolved grievances. the warning signs of violence. In many cases.1002/ert .” This is a common misconception regarding workplace violence. mentally and emotionally. This is significant because it refutes the common misconception that individuals “just snap”—or “go postal”—without identifiable motives or goals. Some even discussed their plans openly.

harassment. and the loss of a loved one). and increasingly obstinate behavior do not mean an individual will commit an act of violence.1002/ert 85 . Perpetrators often experience personal events or circumstances that lead them to commit violent acts in the workplace. or wage garnishments. Taken alone. However. swearing. ridicule. Stewart is charged in the shooting deaths of eight people at a Carthage nursing home. and these include bankruptcy or foreclosure. feelings of extreme depression and desperation to the point of contemplating suicide. bullying situations. These clues are often newly acquired negative traits that become more prevalent as the aggressor moves closer to taking action. repeated confrontations. certain acts of sexual harassment. and so on. unexplained absences or tardiness to work. sabotage. inappropriate aggression still falls under the umbrella of workplace violence. These financial indicators are more prevalent with the negative economic impacts of the current recession. Some acts that can constitute inappropriate workplace aggression include both active and passive behaviors. any increase in intensity or frequency of violence indicators is an important sign that there may be trouble ahead. and blatant disregard for workplace rules. Financial problems may become evident with large withdrawals from or the closure of organizational accounts. use of derogatory names. custody battles. frequent job changes or gaps in employment history. HOW DOES INTIMATE-PARTNER VIOLENCE INTERSECT WITH WORKPLACE VIOLENCE? In Fayetteville. direct or implied threats. you should pay attention. If an employee exhibits sharp or noticeable behavioral changes. such as ostracism. These include escalating domestic problems (divorce. If left unchecked. yelling or screaming. negative rumors. North Carolina. However. The shooting spree left seven patients and Questions—And Answers Employment Relations Today DOI 10. aggressive eye contact. inappropriate workplace aggression can lead to workplace violence. unresolved debts.Winter 2011 may consider inappropriate workplace aggression to be all such behavior that doesn’t rise to the level of physical violence. workplace pranks. Financial problems also often lead to workplace violence. where his estranged wife worked. Indicators that personal or financial problems may be leading to trouble at work include bringing a weapon to work or exhibiting a fascination with weapons. explosive outbursts of anger. and health problems or substance abuse. slamming doors. throwing objects. withholding necessary information. lack of social support or increasing isolation. intimidation. Robert Stewart is currently being tried after being charged with eight counts of first-degree murder in 2009.

A police sergeant was shot in the face. yet only 13 percent of corporate executives think their companies should address the problem.S. Stewart’s estranged wife hid in the bathroom of a locked Alzheimer’s patient area and survived the attack. In late 2007.000 full-time jobs—and nearly 5.8 Despite these alarming statistics. though Stewart wounded the officer as well. according to the U. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Intimate-partner violence. According to the CDC. increasingly spills over into the workplace.6 million days of household productivity as a result of the violence. The statistics are shocking. Although nearly two in three corporate executives (63 percent) say that intimate-partner violence is a major problem in our society. the survey shows that a significant majority of corporate executives and their employees from the nation’s largest companies recognize the harmful and extensive impact of intimate-partner violence in the workplace. A Carthage police officer confronted Stewart and shot and wounded him. the cost is $727 million annually in lost productivity and $4 billion for direct medical and health-care costs. and learn how to diffuse situations that may lead to workplace violence. 2010. Surprisingly. recognize the signs that may indicate that an employee is either the victim of violence or a potential perpetrator of violence in the workplace. victims of intimate-partner violence lose a total of nearly 8. What follows are some specific steps HR should take to prevent workplace violence. Police say Monte Evans brought a gun to the Bojangles restaurant while his estranged wife was at work there. and his fellow officer was wounded. October 6.Employment Relations Today one nurse dead. most of which are absorbed by employers. a majority of top executives have blinders on when it comes to recognizing that victims of such abuse exist in their own companies. The sergeant died five days later. WHAT STEPS CAN HR TAKE IMMEDIATELY TO CURTAIL THE RISK OF WORKPLACE VIOLENCE? A critical role of HR is to ensure a safe work environment for all employees. Liz Claiborne. the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence (CAEPV). and Safe Horizon released a groundbreaking survey on corporate executives and employee awareness of the impact of intimate-partner violence in the workplace.1002/ert . This requires that all HR managers understand how to minimize the risk of workplace violence. and 55 percent cite its harmful impact on productivity in their companies. many employers do not take intimate partner violence as a serious workplace threat. For businesses. also called domestic violence. One in four women in the United States experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. 86 Employment Relations Today Lynn D. marked a year since a Winston-Salem police officer died from injuries in a shooting following a domestic disturbance.0 million days of paid work—the equivalent of more than 32. Lieber DOI 10.

the Internet. Many organizations conduct such training in-house. Train. The policy should also specify that there will be no retaliation for filing a complaint of actual or potential inappropriate workplace aggression/workplace violence. Recognize and Act on the Warning Signs. It is paramount that HR personnel and hiring managers do their due diligence when screening prospective hires to ensure they are doing all that is possible to provide a safe and productive work environment for their employees. and social media in bullying and other forms of aggression. because a background check was not conducted in the screening process could mean the difference between life and death for employers and employees alike. or even a wanted criminal. Make sure your organization’s workplace-violence prevention policy is up to date. as described earlier. Workplace-violence-prevention training can be easy and costeffective. especially with the growing prevalence of online training. Even fewer employers do so with regularity or for new hires. Hiring someone with a history of violence. Conduct Thorough Background Screening. Because of the recent use of technology. 2. HR professionals should be alert to the warning signs exhibited by victims of inappropriate Questions—And Answers Employment Relations Today DOI 10. only a small percentage of employers actually conduct such training. 3. The policy should include a statement that your organization strictly enforces “zero tolerance” regarding any acts of inappropriate workplace aggression/ workplace violence. Such actions could also be considered civil negligence. Create and Implement a New Workplace-Violence Prevention Policy. with a special focus on the organization’s specific risk areas. even temporary and part-time employees. Train! Most employers acknowledge the importance of training related to preventing inappropriate workplace aggression and workplace violence. The policy should include definitions of what constitutes inappropriate workplace aggression and how to report inappropriate workplace aggression and/or threats of workplace violence.1002/ert 87 . Train. your organization’s workplace-violence prevention policy should include prohibitions against the inappropriate use of electronic media in the workplace and detail the actions the company will take for related violations. resulting in large awards against the employer for not taking appropriate steps to create and maintain a safe workplace. It also should detail how reports of inappropriate workplace aggression will be investigated and what actions can be taken to address such behavior. Workplace-violence prevention training should be conducted approximately once a year for the entire employee population and should be mandatory for all new hires. or create and implement one if your organization is lacking in this area. In addition to the warning signs and triggering events of perpetrators.Winter 2011 1. However. 4.

and they may be uncomfortable in or refuse to attend meetings or refuse to work on projects with their perpetrators. Ibid. a San Francisco–based provider of Web-based legal compliance training.html.Employment Relations Today workplace aggression/workplace violence.. 4. (2003. The company helps client organizations build an effective affirmative defense under IPV_cost.html. S. Retrieved from http://www. ( Notes 1. Lieber DOI 10. (2004.bls. 6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).htm. Managers not prepared for workplace violence. July 14). US Department of Labor. Armour. Lynn D. Retrieved from http://www.htm. 8. Retrieved from http://www. July 14). L.bls. (2010.htm. Lieber.cdc. Ibid. (2000.. She may be contacted at www. Lieber is a seasoned employment law attorney and a nationally recognized spokeswoman on harassment and discrimination law. Workplace Answers delivers Web-based training in human resources. or frequently missing work or showing up late. reporting to work with unexplained bruises. Fatality data are from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.htm. Victims’ attendance and job performance often decline. and financial and ethics compliance. & Glaberson. 3. 2.bls.nytimes. Survey of workplace violence prevention. Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence. Some warning signs that a coworker may be the victim of intimate-partner violence include the worker wearing sunglasses indoors or on cloudy days.workplaceanswers. ( March). Bureau of Labor Statistics. The well-marked roads to homicidal rage. USA Today. April 10). 88 Employment Relations Today Lynn D. Retrieved from http://www. 5. is founder and CEO of Workplace Answers. state. Costs of intimate partner violence against women in the United July).1002/ert . October). unlawful harassment prevention. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from Workplace violence fact sheet.usatoday. Retrieved from http://www. W. 7. and federal employment law.