Workplace violence definition, risk factors, and prevention tips

Most HR professionals would like to believe they enjoy a safe work environment, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore the risk of workplace violence. In fact, businesses lose anywhere from $250 billion – $330 billion every year due to incidents of workplace violence, which is an eye-opening statistic. The topic of workplace safety dominates news cycles after major incidents (like a shooting or physical assault), minor incidents occur every single day that fail to make the headlines.

Not every act of violence involves physical harm, as verbal abuse also qualifies and can have detrimental effects on an employee’s mental health. That’s why a workplace violence prevention plan is a must for any organization, regardless of industry or size. Even if your organization is in a safe location and doesn’t handle valuable assets, that doesn’t mean that you’re completely in the clear.

Why is that?

It’s because ‘workplace violence’ is an umbrella term that encompasses more than one type of violent behavior. Sexual harassment, threats, and even playground insults all count as forms of workplace violence, and they can occur at any organization, anywhere, and at any time.

As such, it takes constant vigilance to prevent violent acts from occurring at your place of work. At the same time, fingers tend to point at the head of human resources whenever violent incidents do occur, the onus is on everyone in your organization to prevent, identify, and stop violent behavior.

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Read on to learn more about workplace violence, including the most common warning signs, risk factors, and top prevention tips.

Understanding workplace violence

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides a formal workplace violence definition on its site, which is as follows:

Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disrupting behavior that occurs at the work site.”

As you can see, the term includes any type of threatening behavior that disrupts productivity, which includes harassment and verbal abuse. It’s crucial to note that threatening behavior doesn’t have to occur in face-to-face interactions, either.

Consider that 23.3% of workers claim they’ve been bullied through aggressive emails. The same study found that negative gossip from co-workers (20.2%) accounted for a large portion of workplace bullying. These forms of workplace violence are especially sneaky, as without proper incident reporting policies in place, they tend to fall by the wayside.

That’s bad news for any organization, as unreported bullying and verbal abuse will wreak havoc on your retention rates and employee engagement levels.

If you aren’t paying close attention to the well-being of your employees, it could take years before you discover that a handful of mean-spirited, gossipy employees are tanking your new hire retention rates.

Certain types of businesses and working situations are at higher risk for violent incidents, including the following:

  • Businesses that involve the handling and exchange of money (banks, restaurants, bars, retail stores, etc.).

  • Working alone at night (gas stations and convenience stores, especially).

  • Working with mentally unstable or hostile people in healthcare, criminal justice, law enforcement, or social service settings.

  • Guarding valuable possessions or property.

  • Working at organizations located in high-crime areas.

  • Working at organizations with poor security measures (no cameras, unlit parking lots, etc.).

Violence prevention measures are especially important for these working situations to ensure safety.

The 4 types of workplace violence

As stated before, workplace violence is an umbrella term that includes more than physically violent acts.

In particular, there are 4 distinct types of violence that you may run into at the workplace, which are:

  • Criminal intent

  • Client-to-worker

  • Worker-to-worker

  • Domestic violence

Each type has its warning signs and risk factors, so let’s take a closer look at each one.

Type I: Criminal intent

In criminal intent incidents, the perpetrator has no personal relationship with the organization and enters the premises to commit a crime — typically robbery. However, random assaults and acts of terrorism also qualify as criminal intent.

Workers at high risk for criminal intent incidents include the following:

  • Bank tellers

  • Convenience store employees

  • Taxi cab drivers

  • Law enforcement workers

  • Employees who handle cash or work alone during late hours

An example of criminal intent would be a burglar holding up a convenience store employee at gunpoint to rob the register. Parking lot robberies and assaults also count as criminal intent (as long as the perpetrators have no personal relationship with the assaulted).

The best way to prevent criminal intent incidents is to implement security best practices like:

  • Surveillance cameras. Security cameras are excellent because they both act as a deterrent (your property is 300% safer with a camera than without) and provide a clear visual record of any incidents.

  • Ample lighting, both indoors and outdoors. Criminals are far less likely to strike in areas that are brightly lit. While lighting isn’t as adequate of a deterrent as cameras are, they make areas like parking lots far safer at night (not to mention that you want the areas under surveillance to have proper lighting so you can see the footage).

  • Proper cash control procedures. If you enact strict cash control policies, robbers will have less of a chance to act. Best practices include not carrying too much cash in the register (lock most of it in a drop vault and keep the keys to yourself) and disguising money bags during trips to the bank. It’s also a good idea to post a front sign stating that you have limited cash on hand to deter would-be robbers.

  • Robbery response training. This type of training is less about stopping robberies and more about preventing physical injury and further acts of violence. This type of training will help your team stay calm during a robbery, which might wind up saving their lives.

  • Entry and exit control (locked door codes/keys/security systems). Your organization is far more likely to get broken into if you don’t have tight entry and exit measures in place. Besides always locking up at night, alarm systems and smart locks add additional layers of security.

It’s important to note that robberies account for a vast majority of workplace homicides (85%, to be exact).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), these are the leading risk factors for violent incidents exhibiting criminal intent:

  • Exchanging money with the public

  • Working in small numbers or completely alone

  • Community settings (taxi drivers and police officers)
  • Working in high-crime areas

  • Guarding valuable possessions or property
  • Working during the early morning or late at night

If your workplace exhibits any of these risk factors, you should implement the security measures listed above.

Type II: Client-to-worker

This next type of workplace violence involves perpetrators who have professional relationships with the affected parties. It could be a client, customer, inmate, or patient that sparks a violent incident, both physical and non-physical.

Healthcare workers are especially at risk for these types of incidents, especially if they work with volatile patients daily. Unfortunately, restaurant staff like waiters face the brunt of customer anger, be it physical aggression or verbal tirades, fueled by intoxication or dissatisfaction with service. This makes them especially vulnerable to workplace violence.

Student-to-teacher assaults are, unfortunately, also common, and they qualify as client-to-worker incidents.

Prevention strategies for client-to-worker violent incidents include the following:

  • Ensure adequate staffing and quality of service. If you’re short-staffed and provide low-quality service, it’s only natural for patrons to become frustrated and upset, which can escalate quickly (especially if you serve alcohol). Something as simple as ensuring adequate staffing and quality of service can go a long way toward preventing aggressive outbursts.

  • Teaching proper restraint techniques to healthcare professionals. Occupational injuries can occur when healthcare workers aren’t properly trained to restrain/takedown unruly patients. That’s why it’s essential to provide hands-on training covering how to safely apply each restraint for your nurses and other healthcare staff.

  • Training on violence de-escalation techniques. If your employees are armed with de-escalation techniques, they’ll be able to prevent workplace violence from occurring in the first place. The last thing you want is for your staff to become defensive or combative whenever a customer or client starts to become heated. Learning how to listen, empathize, and speak in a calm tone is crucial for successfully navigating conflicts.

  • Learning to recognize the signs. Interpersonal communication skills are extremely valuable for recognizing and de-escalating conflicts before they happen. There are a series of telltale behavioral cues that convey when someone is getting upset. Clinched fists, tension in the face, frowning, sneering, and yelling are all clear signs that someone is angry. Therefore, using the de-escalation techniques mentioned above sooner rather than later is the best course of action.

There’s no surefire way to prevent 100% of all violent occurrences at work. These techniques will hopefully help you reduce client-to-worker incidents by a significant margin.

Type III: Worker-to-worker

Also referred to as lateral violence, worker-to-worker incidents occur whenever two co-workers engage in violent behavior – both physical and non-physical. These types of incidents range in severity from playground insults to full-on physical altercations and sexual harassment. 9 times out of 10, the motive is either work-related or due to interpersonal relationships between the team.

Hostile work environments aren’t good news for anyone, as your employee retention levels will begin to plummet (along with engagement and job satisfaction). If word gets out that your company culture is particularly toxic, you’ll struggle to recruit top talent – which is never good news.

That’s why you have every incentive to prevent the threat of violence at your workplace to ensure healthy levels of engagement, satisfaction, and productivity.

Bullying is another huge cause for concern in office environments, and it can take on several forms. As stated previously, lots of office workers have been bullied via email, but it doesn’t end there. Bullying can also take the form of harassment, gossip, cruel pranks (we’re looking at you, Jim Halpert), and physical intimidation/assault.

If you haven’t already, enacting a workplace violence prevention program is a must for all organizations.

Here are some of the most effective ways to prevent worker-to-worker violent incidents:

  • Train managers to spot the warning signs of bullying. Your managers are your first line of defense for preventing violent incidents, so you should train them to spot the warning signs. This includes looking out for excessive gossip, threatening emails, inappropriate language, and arguments. Telltale signs of bullied employees include sulking, becoming more withdrawn, and seeming more stressed in general.

  • Enact a no-tolerance policy. Bullying and other forms of worker-to-worker violence shouldn’t be tolerated by any means. As such, you should develop a no-tolerance policy for violent incidents. You can employ a ‘three-strike rule’ for things like harmful gossip and playground insults. However, more serious incidents like shoving, hitting, and bullying should be grounds for immediate termination.

  • Perform regular check-ins with employees. There are many reasons why an employee may choose not to report a violent incident at work. These include fear of losing their job, not being believed, or fear of retaliation from the other party. Holding regular check-ins with your employees provides a private, safe space for them to open up about incidents of bullying/violence without fear of repercussion. Let your staff know that you’re there for them and that they shouldn’t fear speaking out if something is wrong.

Type IV: Domestic violence

The last type of workplace violence occurs when the perpetrator has a personal relationship with the victim. Most of the time, the perpetrator is not employed at the victim’s place of work, but that isn’t always the case (like when spouses both work at the same business).

An example is a waiter’s jealous spouse repeatedly calling and harassing them at work (possibly even making threats). These types of incidents are difficult to prevent because they’re almost impossible to predict. Unless you plan on incorporating Big Brother-style surveillance on your employees, their relationships will remain a mystery (as they should to retain privacy).

The best course of action with these incidents is to develop an employee assistance program.

This program should include things like:

  • The proper way to report domestic violence incidents

  • Ensuring there’s no penalty or backlash for coming forward

  • Encouraging co-workers to speak out
  • Ensuring all reported incidents remain entirely confidential

These policies will make it easy for victims and co-workers to report incidents of domestic violence, which will help your team stay safe.

Final thoughts: Workplace violence defined

Those are the 4 types of workplace violence you may run into, including ways to prevent them from causing too much harm.

Don’t wait for violence to strike – a combination of deterrence and prevention is your best defense. Implement both strategies to create a safer workplace.

No workplace is immune to violence. Every organization must prioritize employee safety by taking preventative measures. You never know when a domestic dispute or heated argument may break out, so it’s crucial to remain vigilant.