According to the National Safety Council, assaults are the fourth leading cause of work-related deaths and nonfatal assault injuries continue to rise.
It’s impossible to overstate the costs of workplace violence on organizations. Workplace assault and abuse not only harm victims, but also negatively impact the physical and psychological health of others in the workplace. And, depending on the company’s response, they can irreversibly damage the reputation of the company and owner.
Preventing, defusing and investigating workplace violence should be a top priority for every company. This guide will explain the four common categories of workplace violence, how to properly investigate both threats and acts of violence, as well as how to protect your staff from harm.
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Workplace violence occurs at, or outside, the workplace. A violent act can range from verbal abuse to physical assault and homicide. Workplace violence also encompasses actions such as damaging property, concealing or using a weapon, intimidating or stalking others and making threats.
Violence at work can be damaging to the victim and others, not just in the moment but for months or years after. Depending on the severity of the incident, the victim may be absent from work and may suffer from psychological damage. Witnesses, too, may suffer from stress and psychological harm.
Costs will rise to increase office security, hire new personnel and compensate for lowered productivity. The company’s reputation may suffer as well.
An act of violence can fall into one of four categories: criminal intent, customer, employee-on-employee and personal relationship.
Criminal intent generally refers to a situation in which an individual is committing a separate crime that ultimately turns violent. A common example is a gas station robbery. The unknown robber demands cash from the register, the employee refuses to cooperate and the situation becomes violent.
Those who exchange money with the public, work alone, work late at night or work in high-crime areas are highly vulnerable to criminal-intent violence.
Customer violence occurs when a customer becomes violent towards the person who is serving them. This type of workplace violence is a large risk to service industry workers. An example is a customer getting angry and frustrated with a bartender, nurse, server or retail worker and becoming violent.
Any employee who deals directly with the public, such as those who deliver passengers, goods or services is more likely to experience violence at the hands of a customer than those who don’t deal directly with the public.
Employee-on-employee workplace violence is exactly what the name suggests—when one employee becomes violent with their colleague. This type of workplace violence is often the result of many minor annoyances that have built up over time, causing the violent individual to lose control.
Workplace violence programs are beginning to shift their focus away from the masked robber and toward the disgruntled former coworker.
Personal relationship workplace violence is often used to describe domestic violence incidents that spill over into the victim’s place of work. The perpetrator of the violence does not work for the company or agency but comes into the office to assault, threaten or otherwise act violently toward their victim.
For women, personal relationship violence can be deadly. Every year in the US, approximately 30 women are murdered at their place of work in a domestic violence incident.
Investigating workplace violence is different from many other investigations because the risk is much greater. If there is fraud happening, the company is losing money. If there is data theft happening, the company is losing confidential files. But if there is violence, there is a real risk of serious physical and psychological harm or, worse, a death.
It’s vital that a company has a strong policy that outlines what to do when someone reports workplace violence. Follow these steps and incorporate them into your own processes to effectively investigate violence in your office.
Receiving a Report
You have just received word that an inmate at your correctional facility assaulted one of your security guards. Never ignore a report of violence. Once reported, you have a legal and moral obligation to follow up.
Avoid making the complainant jump through hoops. Reporting an incident should not be a burdensome duty. It should be easy and lead immediately to an investigation. Someone who has just experienced or witnessed a violent event is already upset and needs to be heard.
Depending on the violence that occurred, a medical evaluation might be necessary. Ask if the victim is hurt and if not, ask if they are comfortable continuing in their current position. A victim of violence may want a new role or time off from work.
For example, a front-line employee who has recently been physically assaulted by a customer might prefer to do behind-the-scenes work where they aren’t required to interact with the public.
In your workplace violence investigations, it might be hard to figure out what happened, who was involved and where, when, why and how it happened. There will likely be two different sides to the story, and the violent person may believe their actions were warranted.
In instances like this, take a minute for a cursory overview. The perspective from a few steps back might make it clear what happened and what to do next. If there is an imminent danger, notify law enforcement immediately. This might warrant a criminal investigation, which will be handed over to someone outside of the company.
When a person behaves violently, take a look at collateral information. Inquire about personal or professional stressors and request records that might confirm a history of violence. Check if they have been disciplined before for violent comments or behaviors.
Ideally, your organization will have implemented case management software from which you can quickly identify previous incidents. For example, if Nancy from HR has verbally assaulted others before, this information would be quickly retrievable.
When you’ve collected all files and information relative to the violent incident, it’s time to conduct interviews.
If the incident is a domestic violence issue, you’ll want to uncover facts about past domestic violence incidents, current relationship triggers, the perpetrator’s criminal past, the current family living situation, any substance abuse issues and more.
Since there is a history between perpetrator and victim, and perhaps children in the home, it’s important to understand the complete context before taking any next steps.
The International Risk Management Institute (IRMI) provides a detailed list of questions that are critical to understanding and managing domestic violence at work.
Interview the injured and/or threatened employee(s) first. Conduct the interviews in an official environment, if possible, to reduce distractions and interruptions.
The witness(es) may have a more difficult time explaining what happened, especially if they are fearful of being the next victim. Inform the witness(es) that they have a legal right to refuse to answer any questions and if they do refuse, record the reason in your documents.
Since workplace violence investigations can be so traumatic and difficult to carry out, there are a number of “best practices” that must be followed.
The first best practice involves your questioning approach. Answering questions about a traumatic experience is hard, so if the interviewee refuses to answer, simply move along and try to come back to the question at a later time. If the interviewee becomes agitated, keep your voice calm and level, or even lower it.
Another best practice involves your listening technique. Experts advise that the investigator be patient and let the interviewee respond in full. Completing another person’s sentences using your own assumption may ruin rapport and disrupt the interview. Suppress this urge as work-related violence unfolds in unique ways every time, so it’s best to let the person speak.
Reaching a Conclusion
You’ve collected information and interviewed the related parties, now the final step is to do something about what happened.
Determine the cause of the event based on what you have learned through the investigation process. Then, it’s time to take action to prevent its recurrence, through disciplinary action or law enforcement, and document the entire process in a report.
If you’ve come to the conclusion that this has been an isolated event and there is a low risk of it happening again, a standard investigation is sufficient in most circumstances.
Due to the vulnerability of the victim(s) and witness(es) in this situation, you are not obligated to offer details or evidence to the perpetrator if you believe that doing so would increase the risk of further violence.
Document the entire process, including the initial report, any other relevant information, who was interviewed, what was disclosed and your final conclusion. Suggest actions the company can take to prevent the incident from occurring again and make sure the safety team commits to them.
How you handle a threat of violence is slightly different from how you would handle an act of violence. If an act of violence has already been committed, your job is simply to collect information, identify the suspect, support the victim and discipline accordingly.
However, when an employee is concerned about the possibility of violence in the future, your responsibility, authority and investigative tools are less clear. Instead of uncovering what has happened already, your job is to figure out whether you should be concerned for the future. A threat assessment is the best way to do this.
According to the Interagency Security Committee, there are three major functions of a threat assessment program. The first is to identify the potential perpetrator. The second is to assess the risks posed by the suspect at a given time. The third is to manage both the suspect and the risks they present.
Assess the risks by gathering information on the suspect. Review the material they create or possess, talk with those who know this person, retrieve relevant records or archives. If you’ve determined that this person is a risk, develop a plan that provides them with adequate support. Draw on internal and external resources to mitigate the threat.
Your employees deserve to be safe at work but conducting a thorough investigation will only do so much. Whether the violence is perpetrated by another employee, a customer, a stranger or a spouse, the best way to keep your office safe is a comprehensive prevention strategy.
Your strategy should be made up of many different components. At the minimum, you’ll want to develop procedures that promote safety, mandate educational workshops and implement security.
Establish Procedures that Prioritize Safety
To combat criminal intent violence, convenience stores often provide drop safes to limit the amount of cash their attendants have on hand. By mandating this and making it known to the general public, it makes the attendant a less attractive opportunity for robberies.
Another procedure you can implement to promote employee safety is instructing employees not to enter locations where they feel unsafe. Simply reminding your delivery drivers that they can refuse to enter a seemingly dangerous home can be the difference between life and death. Or, similarly, adopt a “buddy system” to combat this.
Educate Employees and Managers
Educate employees on anti-violence and reporting policies. Explain that all concerns will be investigated and that retaliation is never permitted. The goal is to have employees feel comfortable coming forward with any and all concerns, even those they deem insignificant.
In some industries, personal safety training programs might be a necessary precaution. Those who work alone, late or in high-crime areas should be taught how to recognize, avoid and defuse potentially violent situations.
Educate supervisors and managers on the warning signs of an employee in need. Equipped with this information, managers can keep an eye on their subordinates, recognize red flags and offer support before things turn violent.
Common warning signs include patterns of attendance problems, decreased or inconsistent productivity, concentration problems, poor health or hygiene, evidence of substance abuse, evidence of serious stress and disregard for personal safety. Keep in mind that the presence of one or more of these signs does not necessarily mean violence will occur.
Improve Physical Security (and Use Technology)
Coded card keys or badges can also keep your workplace safer by keeping potentially violent individuals out. Hire security guards. They act as an intimidation tactic and can also help administrators with registering, directing and, if necessary, removing visitors.
Technology such as video surveillance cameras and alarm systems can help keep the workplace safe by acting as a deterrent. If the perpetrator realizes that they will be recorded on video surveillance, or that the victim can quickly notify authorities with an alarm system, they will be less likely to act violently.
Equip staff members who work “in the field” with a cell phone or a handheld alarm. A potential victim may be less appealing to the perpetrator if they’re equipped with technology that keeps them connected to others.