The Facts About Workplace Violence

Statistics, Predictors, and How to Keep Employees Safe

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A very real, clear and present danger lurks just beyond the consciousness of people who work together eight to 10 hours a day, five to seven days a week. It is the potential for workplace violence to occur.

Increasingly, the Human Resources function is both the target of these threats of workplace violence and the organization's first line of defense for the prevention of workplace violence.

What causes workplace violence? Are violent actions more likely to occur at work? What actions or changes tell an organization that an individual has the potential to commit a violent act at work? Read on to find the answers to these questions and prioritize the health and safety of your employees.

Statistics and Facts About Workplace Violence

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI):

"Workplace violence—including assaults and suicides—accounted for 15 percent of all work-related fatal occupational injuries in 2015 (see Slide 3 of the  2015 CFOI Chart Package) according to data. In their article " Work-Related Homicides: The Facts," Eric Sygnatur and Guy Toscano note that "Contrary to popular belief, the majority of these incidents are not crimes of passion committed by disgruntled coworkers and spouses, but rather result from robberies."
"In 2015, there were 16,380 non-fatal cases of intentional injury by person(s) which required days away from work in private industry; however, this accounted for just 2 percent of all non-fatal injuries and illnesses in private industry (see Table R31.)"
"There were approximately 2.9 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses reported by private industry employers in 2015, which occurred at a rate of 3.0 cases per 100 equivalent full-time workers. The 2015 rate continues a pattern of declines that, apart from 2012, occurred annually for the last 13 years. Private industry employers reported nearly 48,000 fewer nonfatal injury and illness cases in 2015 compared to a year earlier."

What the National Crime Victimization Survey Says

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), 2 million assaults and threats of violence against Americans in the workplace occur annually. The most common type of workplace violence was assault, with an average of 1.5 million workplace assaults occurring a year.

Workplace violence occurred as follows: 396,000 aggravated assaults, 51,000 rapes and sexual assaults, 84,000 robberies, and 1,000 homicides were reported. These figures likely fall short of the actual number of acts of workplace violence that, in fact, occurred at work as not all acts of workplace violence are reported.

To make statistics about workplace violence accurate is difficult because not all employees report violence in the workplace to their employers much less to governmental agencies that track workplace violence statistics.

The Most Prevalent Types of Workplace Violence

The news media tends to sensationalize acts of workplace violence that involve coworkers, specifically cases that involve an active shooter. In sensationalizing incidents of workplace violence, they remove the emphasis from the most important targets for workplace safety programs.

The incidents of workplace violence that occur are much more common in certain industries and in specific occupations. In fact, the most common motive for job-related homicides is robbery, accounting for 85 percent of workplace violence deaths. People who are employed to sell products or act in safety matters in public-facing activities are more prone to experience workplace violence.

Occupations at Greatest Risk of Workplace Violence

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provides information that illustrates that anyone can become the victim of a workplace assault, but the risks are greater for workplace violence in certain industries and occupations. For example, the taxicab industry has the highest risk for workplace violence, nearly 60 times the national average for potential workplace violence.

Other occupations at greatest risk include police, detectives, sheriffs, gas station workers, and security guards. In the NCVS study, described earlier, retail sales workers were the most numerous victims, with 330,000 attacked each year.

They were followed by police, with 234,200 officers victimized. Disputes among coworkers and with customers and clients accounted for about one-tenth of the total incidences of workplace violence annually.

More fatal work injuries resulted from transportation incidents than from any other event in 2014. Roadway incidents alone accounted for nearly one out of every four fatal work injuries.

Thus, while violence can happen between coworkers, no responsible safety process in the workplace can ignore the fact that violence is more likely to come from outside the immediate workplace. 

Nor can it ignore the fact that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Robbers were the most common type of work-related homicide assailant for men and the second most common for women. The most frequent type of assailant in work-related homicides involving women was a relative or domestic partner."

Recognizing the Potential for Workplace Violence

Larry Porte, a former Secret Service agent and the former manager of the Threat Response and Asset Protection Division of Kerby Bailey and Associates, says that workplace violence is a process that does not occur in a vacuum, but rather is the product of an interaction among three factors:

  • The individual who takes violent action
  • The stimulus or triggering conditions that lead the person to see violence as a "way out"
  • A setting that facilitates or permits the violence; a setting in which there is a lack of intervention

Porte says that perpetrators of workplace violence usually have one of these motives:

  • Achieve notoriety or fame
  • Bring the world's attention to a personal problem
  • Avenge a perceived wrong
  • End his personal pain (to be killed)

He believes that workplace attacks "are the products of understandable and often discernible processes of thinking and behavior."

In a paper that enumerates eight cases of workplace violence that occurred in 2017, Bryan Strawser of Bryghtpath says, "As we work together to fight against workplace violence, the biggest challenge is that no two incidents are exactly the same. They can range from disgruntled employees to robbery attempts to somebody just deciding that they’ve had enough.

"Since these incidents are nearly impossible to predict, it’s important to develop strong workplace violence training and policies so your employees know how to spot early warning signs and react appropriately when a situation arises."

Warning Signs That an Employee May Become Violent

Dr. Lynne McClure, a nationally recognized expert in managing high-risk employee behaviors before they escalate to workplace violence, defines these discernible processes in a most understandable manner. She says that there are eight categories of warning signs that signal the potential for workplace violence to occur.

Supervisors, managers, co-workers, and Human Resources professionals need to know these signals of potential workplace violence. They are easy to miss when you are observing colleagues and they are not always predictive of violent actions.

Following an incidence of violent behavior in the workplace, however, coworkers often realize that they saw signs and changes in a coworker’s behavior prior to the event and didn’t take action. In fact, training in recognizing signs of potential workplace violence in coworker behavior is one of the key opportunities organizations have for the prevention of workplace violence.

8 Behaviors That May Predict Acts of Workplace Violence

In her book, "Risky Business: Managing Employee Violence in the Workplace," McClure describes eight categories of high-risk behaviors that indicate the need for management intervention. She says these high-risk behaviors are everyday behaviors that occur in certain patterns—they occur long before threats or actual workplace violence.

The eight categories of workplace violence McClure identifies are the following:

  • Actor behaviors: The employee acts out his or her anger with such actions as yelling, shouting, slamming doors, throwing objects, and so on.
  • Fragmentor behaviors: The employee takes no responsibility for his actions and sees no connection between what he does and the consequences or results of his actions. As an example, he blames others for his mistakes.
  • Me-first behaviors: The employee does what she wants, regardless of the negative effects on others. As an example, the employee takes a break during a last-minute rush to get the products to a customer, while all of the other employees are working hard.
  • Mixed-messenger behaviors: The employee talks positively but behaves negatively. As an example, the employee acts in a passive-aggressive manner saying that he is a team player but then refuses to share information with colleagues.
  • Wooden-stick behaviors: The employee is rigid, inflexible, and controlling. She won't try new technology, wants to be in charge, or purposefully withholds information.
  • Escape-artist behaviors: The employee deals with stress by lying and/or taking part in addictive behaviors such as drugs or gambling.
  • Shocker behaviors: The employee suddenly acts in ways that are out of character and/or inherently extreme. For instance, a usually reliable individual fails to show up or call in sick for work. A person exhibits a new attendance pattern. 
  • Stranger behaviors: The employee is remote, has poor social skills, becomes fixated on an idea and/or an individual.

According to McClure, "When the manager, supervisor or HR person sees these behavior patterns, she must document, talk to the employee, discuss the behaviors in terms of their negative effect on work, and require training, counseling, or both. Employers may also see the need for disciplinary action."

"The manager, supervisor or HR person must then continue to monitor the employee's behavior. The goal is to either to get the employee to change his behavior, via skills acquisition and/or dealing with problems, or leave the workplace by choice or company decision."

More Factors and Predictors to Watch

Haig Neville, in " Dealing With Workplace Violence," highlights several additional issues. "A New York Times" study of 100 rampage murders … found that most of the killers 'spiraled down a long, slow slide, mentally and emotionally.' According to the study, most killers gave multiple signs that they were in trouble."

With this in mind, employers should be alert to some of the predictors of violent behavior. These include "employees who use intimidation, talk about weaponry, exhibit paranoid or antisocial behavior, feel that they’re not being heard by the company, express extreme desperation, have a history of violence, are loners who don’t fit in with the group."

In an interview with Eric Snyder, past president and CEO of TCM, Inc., McClure said that at least three of these warnings were missed prior to the murder of seven employees at Edgewater Technology in Wakefield, Massachusetts on December 26, 2000. (The act that inspired the multiple murders, including the murder of two HR staff members, was the requirement of the IRS that the company garnishee the wages of the perpetrator, Michael McDermott.)

McClure says that it was later learned that the employee was under psychiatric care and taking medication. The week prior to the murders, “McDermott had an angry outburst at work, which was both extreme and out of character for him.” Finally, McDermott exhibited shocker behavior; he "appears to have been remote, and he became fixated on the IRS and the company's role in protecting him from the IRS."

The Costs and Impact of Workplace Violence

The Workplace Violence Research Institute estimated costs of workplace violence to U.S. businesses at $36 billion per year. Neville says, "Costs include medical and psychiatric care, lost business and productivity, repairs and clean up, higher insurance rates, increased security costs, and worst of all, the loss of valued employees.

In addition, business owners are increasingly being held liable for not making their premises safe for employees and customers. Potential areas of workplace violence-related litigation that should concern employers include civil actions for negligent hiring, workers compensation claims, third-party claims for damages, invasion of privacy actions, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violation charges.

Key Steps to Prevent Workplace Violence

Workplace violence can happen anywhere. Workplace violence can happen to you or someone you love. If you are knowledgeable and watchful about workplace violence and its signs in employees, however, you can anticipate and take actions that may prevent its occurrence. Here are some key steps:

  • Start by adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward any act of workplace violence.
  • Know your employees; know when employee behavior is out of the ordinary.
  • Train supervisors, managers, and other workers that reporting unusual employee behavior to Human Resources is expected and a positive, responsible action. 
  • Make sure that your HR staff takes action on any report of unusual employee behavior.
  • In your employee handbook, establish workplace policies and procedures that ban all violent behavior and assign stiff penalties to any employee who violates the policy.
  • If an employee violates the policy, act swiftly to remove the person from your workplace via suspension and most frequently, employment termination.
  • Let any terminated employee know that if they are seen in your workplace at any time in the future, you will call the police and charge them with trespassing.
  • Secure your work premises. Make certain that only employees and designated suppliers can enter your workplace with a key or pass card.
  • Create an emergency action plan so that in the instance of workplace violence, every employee has an exit strategy.
  • Conduct mock training exercises with your local law enforcement officials.
  • Stop the spiral that can result in violence; give the potentially violent person somewhere to turn for help such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Remember, workplace violence can happen to you or someone you love; there are resources available to help learn how to deal with workplace tragedy.

Disclaimer: Please note that the information provided, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality. The site is read by a worldwide audience and employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country. Please seek legal assistance, or assistance from state, federal, or international governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct for your location. This information is for guidance, ideas, and assistance.