How to Avoid Workplace Violence | In a Heartbeat

How to Avoid Workplace Violence

Workplace violence is preventable, up to and including active shooting emergencies. It is incredibly rare for completely random attacks to occur in the workplace without any kind of warning or precipitating event. All too often, attacks occur as a result of poor planning, lack of strong safety policies, and threats that go unreported or ignored. There are several common sense steps that employers can take to perform their due diligence to prevent workplace violence. Strong safety policies, basic screening measures, and good workplace communication channels all contribute to improving workplace safety for employees and preventing acts of violence at work.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 454 workplace homicides and 340 incidents of non-fatal workplace violence across the country in 2019, including intentional shootings. The good news is that workplace homicides have actually fallen more than 50% from a high of 1,080 in 1994. This may be partly the result of improvements in workplace safety practices, gun safety standards, and screening protocols. Active violence incidents in the workplace might be more common than they seem, but the statistics show that it is possible to mitigate and reduce the rate of such incidents. Here is a list of practical safety measures that businesses can take in order to protect their employees and clients.

Be Aware of Compliance Standards When Conducting Background Checks on Applicants

Conducting background checks on all applicants and potential employees can be an appropriate workplace safety measure in some circumstances, but Delaware employers should be aware of all labor laws that govern how and when such data can be collected or used for hiring. We encourage employers to refer to the Delaware Office of Anti-Discrimination for more resources, and to seek advice from professional legal counsel for all legal advice. 

By conducting universal background checks on all applicants for a position, you can more effectively screen potential employees for a history of violence or workplace assault, but be aware of your legal obligations as an employer to remain in compliance with all workplace safety and labor laws. Delaware is a “ban-the-box” state as of 2014 with the passing of House Bill 167, meaning that it is illegal to ask job candidates to check a box if they have a criminal record as part of the application process. Criminal history alone does not indicate that an employee will necessarily become violent or poses a threat to the workplace–rather, it is important to consider the work environment itself and potential contributing factors to improve safety for your employees.

Identify Workplace Risk Factors for Violence

Environment can be more important than individual characteristics when it comes to predicting or preventing workplace violence. Data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that “during 2015–19, according to victims, male offenders committed the majority of workplace violence (64%). White offenders committed 36% of nonfatal workplace violence, compared to 21% committed by Black offenders and 15% by Hispanic or Latino offenders. Offenders age 30 or older committed 43% of nonfatal workplace violence, and 82% of offenders were acting alone, according to victims.” (from Indicators of Workplace Violence 2019 report). Perpetrators of violence exist across all demographics. 

What environmental risk factors could lead to workplace violence? Take into consideration the work setting, access to potential weapons, levels of stress, and possible personal circumstances that workers may be dealing with. To assess your organization’s risk factors, look objectively at the working conditions for employees, or collect feedback from employees themselves on morale and safety where possible. 

Are you understaffed, resulting in workers being overworked? Long hours and increased stress can provide an escalating factor for workplace conflicts. Is there enough security personnel and reasonable safety measures for employees? Are there avenues for employees to report any personnel issues or safety concerns, without fear of reprisal or retaliation? Do your employees know what those avenues are? There should always be a way for staff to report to management about any safety concerns they may have, and systems in place to ensure that all reported issues are thoroughly resolved. It is always an employers’ responsibility to provide a safe working environment for their staff and to be aware of potential issues for mitigation before tragedies can occur. 

Employers may also consider outside circumstances when assessing workplace safety and the potential for violence. Anything that could cause upheaval, distress, or desperation for workers is a potential precipitating event for violent incidents to occur. Businesses can make resources and support available to their employees to help them cope with extreme circumstances–the Delaware Department of Labor maintains a directory of programs and resources for workers. Extreme circumstances could include pandemic-related hardships, industry layoffs, economic upheaval, the political climate, and national events or tragedies that could put employees in situations of heightened stress. It is both responsible and prudent for management to be aware of factors potentially affecting their workers’ frame of mind, and take those factors into consideration while operating a business. Providing support and resources for employees during tough times can go a long way toward mitigating a broad range of worker safety issues, including workplace violence. 

Encourage Respect for Differences and Adopt a Zero-Tolerance Policy for Harassment

In an inclusive and robustly diverse organization, employees will come from all different walks of life. A strong team will often include different educational backgrounds, diverse family cultures, various religious beliefs, and contrasting political views. While diversity is the sign of a healthy workforce, discrimination and harassment resulting from bigotry can undermine worker safety and provide ground for dangerous encounters between personnel. Employers can help mitigate potential conflicts and increase morale by building a strong team culture of respect.

Depending on the size and needs of your organization, employers can consider adopting an anti-discrimination initiative, seeking anti-harassment training for personnel, or appointing a Diversity and Inclusion officer or committee. Even small everyday gestures can help people feel more like a team. Regardless of an organization’s size or resources, encouraging a culture of respect and adopting strong anti-harassment policies can help make any workplace safer. Employers may consult the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for more information and resources on harassment prevention.

Establish Strong Safety Policies and Behavior Standards to Prevent Workplace Violence

Gray areas in expectations for employee conduct can make it difficult to distinguish what’s acceptable behavior in the workplace and what’s not. Ambiguity can also make it difficult to respond when incidents do occur. Businesses should define and communicate what kinds of behavior are not allowed in the workplace using a clear, written policy that is easily found and referenced by any employee, and provided to all new hires. Don’t rely on ‘common sense’ expectations, or the assumption that everyone should know what is appropriate without needing to be told. When everyone has to guess what others will consider acceptable, employees are left vulnerable. Abusers and harassers may also easily take advantage of the lack of a written policy, hiding behind ambiguity as a justification for their inappropriate actions. This further hinders management’s ability to appropriately respond to such incidents, creating an unsafe workplace.

A safe workplace should have a written policy making it clear that any forms of harassment, aggression, bullying, or verbal abuse will not be tolerated. Managers must also ensure that employees have a safe way to report any incidents of harassment or concerning behavior, without fear of reprisal. It’s impossible to hear the warning signs of potential violence when you aren’t listening for them.

Prevent Conflicts from Escalating into Violence with Proactive Management

It’s just as important to actively enforce a harassment policy as it is to have one. If the stated guidelines can bend or change depending on who violates them, or if employees have no way to report violations, then the policy cannot actually protect anyone. When employees can see that their organization actively adheres to its own safety principles, it will help make employees feel safe. Strong safety policies can limit the potential for violent incidents to occur. 

Swift and effective action is necessary when it comes to rising tensions at work. Small incidents, when left ignored can snowball into anger and explode into an act of violence. It is much better to settle misunderstandings, disagreements, hurt feelings, and complaints before they can escalate into violence. The Delaware Department of Human Resources provides conflict resolution resources and programs for employers.

Foster Good Communication Practices for Personnel

Sending and receiving the right message is very important in creating a safe work environment. Make sure that everyone knows and can easily access and reference the company safety policies at all levels, from the executives to managers and all employees. Employers must also make sure that staff can effectively communicate back their concerns or experiences whenever they feel unsafe in the workplace. Employees must feel that they will be heard and understood, and that appropriate action will be taken with regard to their concerns.

If employees don’t know how to report a concern, managment is effectively blind when it comes to identifying and mitigating threats. Likewise, if employees feel that their concerns will be ignored, swept under the rug, or incur retaliation, then reports won’t be made. Without effective communication, management loses all opportunities they might have had to effectively predict and respond to threats of violence before they occur.

Workplace Violence is Preventable

Preventing violence in the workplace is about building appropriate safeguards and ensuring a good working environment. Workplace safety is not increased by profiling employees, or waiting until after a tragedy occurs to start thinking about workplace violence. Managers can use emergency preparation, employee training, meticulous safety policies, open communication, and good workplace culture to help prevent workplace violence. 

Hosting an emergency preparedness class at your workplace can help staff learn how to effectively respond in case of an active violence emergency. In A Heartbeat’s Surviving Active Violence and Emergencies (SAVE) classes is designed to help businesses and organizations recognize and respond to dangers at work. To learn more about our SAVE classes, contact us at 

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