Each year, more than 2 million people in the United States alone fall victim to some sort of workplace violence, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Not only are there many workplace violence cases that are reported in the U.S., but there are also many more that go unreported. When speaking recently with my friend and colleague, Kelly Johnstone, former Chief Security Officer for The Coca-Cola Company and Senior Advisor to International SOS, she advised “Just because you as an organization aren’t aware of incidents or workplace violence, doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Unfortunately, it’s more likely the opposite is true.” 

Workplace violence comes in many forms and can be defined as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment or intimidation. At one end of the spectrum, it includes the very acute situations such as a shooting or workplace homicide. However, there are the majority, less-physical situations that arise more often, all of which can affect a wide-ranging number of stakeholders, including employees, clients, customers and visitors. Examples of less lethal workplace violence scenarios include team members bullying a co-worker, a threat from a co-worker or a frustrated customer verbally threatening an employee. In recent years, COVID-19 has also shifted many workplace models, exposing that workplace violence doesn't happen just in-office, but it can also occur on digital platforms, and in the home office.

The USA OSHA Act of 1970 requires employers to provide employees with a work environment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm.” Though legal requirements are necessary, many feel the more important reason to have a program that protects employees and prevents workplace violence is the moral and ethical reason to do so. Having said that, the legal risks are significant, and usually underappreciated by most organizations. Johnstone further advised “Few organizations really understand the legal, financial, reputational and productivity cost of a material workplace violence incident. The steps the organization took before the incident will be the key to how well they come out of it.”

A work environment that doesn’t address workplace violence risk will conceal issues that will negatively impact employees’ morale, productivity and retention, consequently impacting business operations.

As organizations create or evolve their duty of care programs, it's important to focus on preventing workplace violence. It’s essential for employers to maintain open communication with employees and provide multiple modes of being able to flag actual or potential issues. Your employees need to be reassured that their employment and career advancement prospects will not be negatively affected if they report issues. 

While prevention is key, it is not always possible for organizations to mitigate risks before they manifest. It is critical for organizations to plan and practice how they would respond to a major incident of workplace violence. Using workplace violence incidents in your scheduled crisis management simulation exercises is an effective way of ensuring your organization understands how to respond. 

All successful workplace violence prevention programs are underpinned by the following themes:

  • Creating a safe working environment
  • Helping people get the help they need for both the threatener and victim
  • Allowing your organization to flourish
  • Being fair
  • Creative in response to each incident 

It is also important that organizations increase focus on the mental health and well-being of employees when looking to mitigate workplace violence. While there is currently no research that shows that improved mental health and well-being in the workplace reduces the frequency of workplace violence, it is reasonable to assume that it makes a difference as poor mental health can be linked to poor stress reactions that could lead to incidents of spontaneous workplace violence. 

Employers must recognize that there is no easy “one size fits all” approach to addressing workplace violence. As an employer, the threat of workplace violence is entirely foreseeable, it is therefore a clear responsibility for your organization to understand the risks and implement measures to address them. Workplace violence should be a priority in a larger duty of care ecosystem for businesses of all sizes.