Legal Clinic

Best Practices for Dealing with Workplace Violence

Question: Workplace violence is becoming a disturbing fact of life these days. Can you suggest some pre-emptive steps that HR professionals and employers can take to (a) best reduce the threat and (b) respond to it if and when it occurs so that we protect our employees and the company? 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013
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Answer: Workplace violence includes not only acts of physical violence, but also threats of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or disruptive behavior that occurs on a worksite. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, workplace violence involves employees, customers, and visitors to a worksite. OSHA estimates that two million American workers report being victims of workplace violence annually. See U.S. Dep't of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Admin

Ways to Reduce the Threat of Workplace Violence

According to OSHA, there are factors that may increase the risk of violence for workers at certain worksites. Specifically, increased risks occur when: (1) employees exchange money with the public; (2) employees are volatile or unstable; (3) employees work in isolated areas; (4) employees work late nights; (5) the location of the worksite is in a high crime area; (6) handguns are prevalent; (7) lack of staff training in recognizing and managing hostile and assaultive behavior; and (8) poorly lit parking areas. OSHA has also identified particular types of employment that tend to be at higher risk for workplace violence, including: (1) delivery drivers, (2) healthcare professionals, (3) public service workers, and (4) law enforcement officers. See OSHA's Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Health Care & Social Service Workers, U.S. Dep't of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Admin.; Workplace Violence, U.S. Dep't of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Admin.

Amid this backdrop, the key to reducing the risk of workplace violence is for the employer to be proactive and to put in place appropriate policies and plans. To start, employers must be committed to workplace prevention and in turn, employees must be committed to being involved in prevention. Employers should follow an action plan to prevent workplace violence by showing a commitment to reducing such acts:

*         Establish a written policy with clear goals and objectives to reduce or eliminate workplace violence.

*         Establish medical and counseling programs for victims.

*         Protect victims who report violence.

*         Evaluate the workplace and identify high-risk situations by surveying employees and assessing trends related to injury and illness data.

*         Evaluate the worksite and improve security measures by installing security devices and restrict access to and from the workplace.  Be aware that such security devices and restrictions must be consistent with any collective bargaining agreement and federal and state law.

*         Offer training to all staff.  The workplace violence prevention program should focus on helping employees recognize potential security hazards as well as to diffuse violent situations.

*         Ensure that all employees are aware of safety policies and understand that claims of workplace violence will be investigated and taken  seriously.

Employers can take additional safety precautions, but, keep in mind that safety precautions must be followed to be effective:

*        Investigate all claims of workplace violence or threatening behavior as soon as possible. This allows for more accurate witness recollections and makes it more likely that evidence is not destroyed or lost.

*         Determine who will be the ultimate decision-maker with regard to employment decisions after a workplace violence incident has occurred.

*         Escort terminated employees off the premises.

*         Monitor visitors to the workplace and require visitor identification.

*         Issue employee identification cards and enforce use of the cards.

*         Ensure that workplace premises and parking lots are well-lit.

*         Arrange furniture in the workplace to provide exits and to prevent entrapment.

*         Map out escape routes.

*         Conduct drills often to practice evacuation and lock-down procedures.

Employers can choose to incorporate these policies into a separate program or include the policies in an employee handbook or manual.  By establishing and following policies and procedures related to workplace safety, employers can help reduce the occurrences of workplace violence and the effectiveness of the staff's response to such acts or threats.

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Ways to Respond to Workplace Violence When It Occurs

In the unfortunate event that an incident of workplace violence occurs, employers should take immediate action. Employers should strive to have violence-management programs that are comprehensive and anticipatory in nature. Specifically, employers should:

*         Promptly and thoroughly investigate all reported incidents of workplace violence and notify law enforcement if needed.

*         Conduct confidential interviews of all the parties involved in the incident.

*         Follow policies related to who has been pre-determined to be the ultimate decision-maker with respect to employment decisions after a violent incident.

*         Take accurate notes of all witness accounts of the incident.

*         Have security present when obtaining the potentially dangerous employee's account of the incident.

*         Consider referring the potentially dangerous employee to counseling.

*         Consider transferring the employee.

*         Discipline the employee in the appropriate fashion and in accordance with the employer's policies and procedures.

*         Consider offering a paid suspension or leave pending the completion of the employer's investigation of the incident.

*         Consider terminating the employee.

While not all acts of workplace violence can be predicted -- or even prevented -- an employer's best defense is to implement effective policies and procedures, and to ensure that its employees are aware of the procedures and trained to handle potentially serious and life-threatening situations. 

Keisha-Ann G. Gray is senior counsel in the labor & employment law department of Proskauer in New York and co-chair of the department's employment litigation and arbitration practice group. Proskauer Associate Allana M. Grinshteyn assisted with this article.

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