Employee Use of Technology in the Workplace: Corporate Liability for Sexual Harassment Claims
Outsourcing Effects Workplace Satisfaction

Workplace Violence: What Employees Need to Know

Workplace Violence on the Rise and Disproportionately Targets Minorities

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, violence in America is now invading the workplace, putting at risk the safety, productivity and health of American workers and this violence appears to be on the increase. Research clearly shows a significant increase in the amount of violence and conflict in the workplace in recent years. Having tripled in the last decade, workplace homicide is the fastest-growing category of murder in the U.S. and is the leading cause of workplace death for women (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1994). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, murder and other violent crimes have escalated in the workplace to the point that the U.S. Department of Justice recently proclaimed the workplace the most dangerous place to be in America.

We all have heard the expression “Going Postal,” which means becoming extremely and uncontrollably angry, often to the point of shooting people dead, usually in a workplace environment. The expression derives from a series of incidents from 1983 onward in which U.S. Postal Service workers  shot and killed managers, fellow workers, and members of the police or general public in acts of mass murder. 

The National Center for Victims of Crime reports the following percent of employees exposed to workplace violence:

  • Threatened with physical harm, 22%
  • Harassed, 19%
  • Physically attacked, 14%
  • Often worried about being a victim, 10%

Most attackers are people that employees deal with on a daily basis with the customer or client at the top of the list:

  • Customer or client, 44%
  • Stranger, 24%
  • Co-worker, 20%
  • Boss, 7%
  • Former employee, 3%
  • Someone else, 3%

I have been the victim of workplace violence. Years ago I was threatened with physical harm because I blew the whistle on an employee who was stealing money from petty cash. I knew about the theft because I worked in accounting and was familiar with the red flags including personal financial problems and access to the fund. In this case I reported what I had observed to my supervisor who approached the employee. Our cordial relationship changed to one of hostility once he found out that I had blown the whistle. He threatened to make up stories about my drinking in the workplace, known of which was true, unless I minded my own business. In the end, I never saw him take funds from petty cash again and credited my actions with changing his behavior.

Homicide was the leading manner of fatal injury for female workers, accounting for 40% of the fatal occupational injuries to women. Blacks, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics incurred a disproportionate share of workplace homicides, compared with their share of total workplace fatalities and their employment share. Immigrants to the U.S. also had a high risk of homicide at work. This group comprised 25% of the workplace homicide victims, but only about 9% of the employed.

Workplace violence increasingly targets women and minorities. Problems in a marriage, spousal separation, dumping a lover, and just plain old rage seem to play an important role in violence against women. Increasingly, violence against minorities can be linked to the tough economic times including jobs being taken from American workers by immigrants and illegal aliens. These are pure and simple hate crimes that should not be tolerated.

Although men who are victimized while working are more likely to be attacked by a stranger, women are more likely to be attacked by someone known to them. Five percent (5%) of the women victimized at work are attacked by a husband, ex-husband, boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend. One-sixth of workplace homicides of women are committed by a spouse, ex-spouse, boyfriend or ex-boyfriend. For every murder, there are numerous rapes and assaults that often leave victims battered and disabled. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, boyfriends and husbands, current and former, commit more than 13,000 acts of violence against women in the workplace every year.

Detailed discussion of the incident with others is an important element of posttraumatic recovery. That is why organizations should have a policy in place to deal with the aftermath of workplace violence that is linked to the ethics code of conduct. It starts with a process to respond to violent incidents and should be linked to sexual harassment policies. Anonymity is a must until and unless follow-up investigation is warranted. There should be clear ethical standards that send a unambiguous message to workers that violence in the workplace including threatening and harassing behavior will not be tolerated and the perpetrator will be dealt with appropriately.

If a company has information that leads it to believe violence may occur, it must take action. If management had knowledge that an employee was being threatened with violence by other employees or third parties, then a duty may arise to protect or at least investigate the threats. Courts have held that notice could result from phone threats, restraining orders, and other forms of communication. The 1990 case Tepel vs. Equitable Life Assurance Society, for example, concluded that the company was responsible for the death of two people and injuries of nine others because it had been told about threats the killer had made against his wife who was employed at the insurance company, but had not beefed up security.

In order for an employee to recover for damages resulting from a violent act committed in the workplace, there must be evidence that the business failed to provide adequate security, or that the security was below standard. If risks cannot be proven (i.e., the presence of foreseeability or notice), then the only recovery available may be worker’s compensation programs or state victim compensation programs.

Victims have rights within the criminal justice system. Although those rights differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, victims’ rights often include the rights to be informed of and present at critical stages of the criminal justice process, and the right to some amount of input to the court at sentencing (known as a victim impact statement).

Additional information is available from the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health. I provide free advice on all workplace issues on a confidential basis and will do my best to suggest ways to deal with and overcome incidents of workplace violence.

Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 16, 2011