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Dealing with Violence in the Workplace

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Scope—This article addresses employers’ responsibility to prevent, manage and mitigate the consequences of workplace violence, including domestic violence. Published reports and research demonstrate the scope of the problem as a major issue for human resource professionals and other corporate officials. Discussion of legal issues and practical challenges in developing and implementing programs and policies is meant to help employers prevent and mitigate the risks of workplace violence.


Workplace violence and domestic violence in the workplace cause detrimental and at times devastating effects on management and employees. The personal and economic toll can be incalculable in terms of loss and suffering. The SHRM Workplace Violence Survey, published in 2012, found that over one-third (36 percent) of organizations reported incidents of workplace violence.

Many employers have addressed the threat of workplace violence by installing security systems, developing zero-tolerance policies, training employees relative to awareness and recognition of employees at risk, intervening with employees who are at risk, and establishing employee assistance programs, among other responses.

This article discusses the following topics related to workplace violence:

  • Definitions of workplace violence.
  • Statistics and industry trends.
  • Relevant laws.
  • Impact on organizations and employees.
  • Security and prevention measures.


The SHRM and ASIS International’s Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention: American National Standard (PDF) defines workplace violence as “a spectrum of behaviors—including overt acts of violence, threats, and other conduct—that generates a reasonable concern for safety from violence, where a nexus exists between the behavior and the physical safety of employees and others (such as customers, clients, and business associates) on-site or off-site, when related to the organization.”1 

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines workplace violence as any physical assault, threatening behavior or verbal abuse that occurs in the work setting. Acts such as psychological trauma due to threats, obscene phone calls, an intimidating presence and harassment of any kind are included.

Workplace violence may include acts that result in damage to organization resources or capabilities. Many employers also consider workplace harassment and bullying to be forms of workplace violence. Additionally, domestic violence that spills over into the workplace in the form of assaults, threats or other actions by outside parties with whom employees have relationships and that occur at the workplace is included in this context. In Workplace Violence Prevention Strategies and Research Needs, NIOSH classifies perpetrators of workplace violence and domestic violence in the workplace into four types:

I: Criminal intent

The perpetrator has no legitimate relationship to the business or its employees and is usually committing a crime in conjunction with the violence. These crimes can include robbery, shoplifting, trespassing and terrorism. The vast majority of workplace homicides (85 percent) fall into this category.

II: Customer or client

The perpetrator has a legitimate relationship with the business and becomes violent while being served by the business. This category includes customers, clients, patients, students, inmates and any other group for which the business provides services. It is believed that a large portion of customer/client incidents occur in the health care industry in settings such as nursing homes or psychiatric facilities; the victims are often patient caregivers. Police officers, prison staff, flight attendants and teachers are other examples of workers who may be exposed to this kind of workplace violence, which accounts for approximately 3 percent of all workplace homicides.

III: Worker-on-worker

The perpetrator is an employee or past employee who attacks or threatens another employee(s) or past employee(s) in the workplace. Worker-on-worker fatalities account for approximately 7 percent of all workplace homicides.

IV: Personal relationship

The perpetrator usually does not have a relationship with the business but has a personal relationship with the intended victim. This category includes victims of domestic violence assaulted or threatened while at work and accounts for about 5 percent of all workplace homicides.

Scope of Problem

Statistics on workplace assaults and violent acts resulting in death or reportable injuries illustrate the scope and seriousness of the related problems of workplace violence and domestic violence in the workplace.

Sources of information

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), about 2 million U.S. workers per year are victims of some kind of workplace violence. Incidents of workplace violence and domestic violence in the workplace resulting in employee injury, illness or death are events that are required to be reported to OSHA. See, Recording and Reporting Occupational Injuries and Illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) monitors and reports on workplace violence and domestic violence in the workplace as an integral part of a broad-based initiative to reduce the incidence of occupational violence. NIOSH also conducts, funds and publishes research on risk factors and prevention strategies. See, Risk Factors and Prevention Strategies.

The Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also surveys workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities, including those caused by workplace violence. According to a 2006 BLS report, nearly 5 percent of the 7.1 million private-industry business establishments in the United States had an incident of workplace violence in 2005. See, Survey of Workplace Violence Prevention (PDF).

In 2012, SHRM published a Workplace Violence Survey, which was conducted to determine the prevalence of violence in today’s organizations, as well as how organizations respond to threats of workplace violence, effects of violence on employees and costs of violence to the organization.

Another tracking source is the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety Workplace Safety Index, which tracks the incidence and workers’ compensation costs of “the most disabling workplace injuries and illnesses” (defined as those causing an employee to lose six or more workdays).2 The 2011 annual index reports “assaults and violent acts” as the 10th leading cause of nonfatal occupational injury during 2009, at a cost of $590 million.3


According to Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, 2010, workplace homicides declined 7 percent in 2010 to the lowest total ever recorded by the fatality census, but workplace homicides involving women increased by 13 percent. Even with the decline, the 2010 preliminary count of workplace suicides is the third highest annual total for the fatal work injury census. See also, Table 1. Fatal Occupational Injuries by Event or Exposure, 2011.

Nonfatal violent crimes

According to figures released in March 2011 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, nonfatal violent crimes have declined in workplaces across the U.S. from 1993 to 2009.

Approximately 572,000 nonfatal violent crimes occurred at work in 2009, down nearly a quarter from the 2.1 million crimes that were reported in 1993. Although many people think of shootings and physical abuse when they consider workplace violence, the statistics encompass threats and other intimidation and harassing behavior toward a colleague. Types of serious nonfatal violent crimes include robbery, sexual assault, burglary and aggravated assault.

Industry trends

In its Survey of Workplace Violence Prevention (PDF), the BLS reported in 2006 that 5 percent of all establishments, including state and local governments, experienced a violent incident. Among them, half of the largest establishments (employing 1,000 or more workers) reported an incident. In these largest establishments in private industry, goods-producing industries reported a higher percentage of co-worker workplace violence than service-providing industries. However, service-providing industries reported much higher percentages of criminal, customer and domestic violence than goods-producing industries.

Although workplace violence is a concern for everyone, a number of industries and certain environments are at a higher risk. Studies conducted by NIOSH concluded that the highest numbers of occupational homicides occurred in the following working environments:

  • Taxicab establishments.
  • Liquor stores.
  • Gas stations.
  • Security and detective services.
  • Justice and public entities such as courts and law enforcement offices.
  • Grocery stores.
  • Jewelry stores.
  • Hotels and motels.
  • Eating and drinking establishments.

Basically, any situations where workers exchange money with the public, work alone or in small groups, deliver passengers, or work late hours or early morning shifts are included. In-home related services, social work, health care and other types of community-based positions are also included in the high-risk category. Risks are even greater for organizations with locations in high-crime areas or for those that have positions that require employees to possess a weapon as part of their daily job function. See, Work to Reduce Exposure to Workplace Violence Threats.

Victimization of women

According to a 2001 NIOSH report (PDF), 40 percent of all workplace-related deaths among female workers were homicides, primarily robbery related, and often in grocery or convenience stores, eating and drinking establishments,  and gasoline service stations. More than a quarter of female victims of workplace homicide are assaulted by people they know (co-workers, customers, spouses or friends). Domestic violence incidents that spill into the workplace account for 16 percent of female victims of job-related homicides. Among the two-thirds of work-related injuries resulting from nonfatal assaults on women, most (70 percent) were directed at women employed in service occupations, such as health care, whereas an additional 20 percent of these incidents occurred in retail locations, such as restaurants and grocery stores.

Relevant Law

Various laws, regulations and employer policies expose employers to liability for incidents of workplace violence and domestic violence in the workplace. In addition, federal and state employee leave laws may entitle victims to take time away from work without penalty; these laws include the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, state family and medical leave laws and state laws (PDF) granting leave to victims of domestic violence.

Legal duty

No federal law explicitly establishes an employer’s duty to prevent or remedy workplace violence against employees. However, employers must comply with the general duty clause [Section 5(a)(1)] of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which states that each employer must furnish a place of employment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”4

Every employer, regardless of industry or number of employees, must advise the nearest OSHA office of any accident that results in one or more fatalities or the hospitalization of three or more employees. The employer must notify OSHA within eight hours of the occurrence of any such accident. Depending on the nature of the incident, state or local police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or the Department of Homeland Security may also be involved.

In 1995, California became the first state to enact the Workplace Violence Safety Act, which allows employers to seek a temporary restraining order to protect employees, co-workers and workplace property from threats of acts of violence. Since then, a number of other states have enacted or are considering enacting similar legislation.

Under these state laws, the harasser does not need to be an employee or former employee for the employer to seek the relief. Furthermore, given the fact that the employer is the party seeking the temporary restraining order for protection against violence in the workplace, the order may be workplace specific, restraining the defendant from contacting the place of business or the harassed employee while performing work duties.

Risk of liability

Acts of violence in the workplace can result in myriad legal actions against employers, as can steps taken in an effort to prevent workplace violence. Potential areas for litigation or charges may include the following:

  • Civil actions for negligent hiring, retention or supervision.
  • Workers’ compensation claims
  • Third-party negligence claims for damages.
  • Requests for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or state family and medical leave laws.
  • Claims resulting from mental impairments under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • OSHA citations, fines or criminal charges.

Organizational and Personal Impact

The overall impact of workplace violence and domestic violence in the workplace is difficult, if not impossible, to calculate.

Impact on organizations

Experts agree that billions of dollars are lost each year in time, productivity, litigation and added security measures as a direct result of violence at work.

Direct costs. As reported above, the 2011 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index reports “assaults and violent acts” as the 10th leading cause of nonfatal occupational injury at a workers’ compensation cost of $590 million during 2009.5 In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that domestic or intimate partner violence costs employers $727.8 million in lost productivity, with more than 7.9 million paid workdays lost each year. See, Costs of Intimate Partner Violence Against Women in the United States.

Additional costs result from employer-provided health care insurance covering the cost of injuries and illnesses, crisis intervention, and group and individual counseling for victims, witnesses and their families.

Indirect costs. Although these numbers are far from complete, to calculate the indirect costs of workplace violence to an organization and its employees, one must take into account more than costs quantifiable in dollars and work hours. Whether an incident of violence or harassment at work involves just two people or two thousand, it will create a widening circle of response, diverting attention and resources from the business at hand. At a minimum, it will require management attention at some level, most often immediate supervisors, HR managers and staff, but also senior management, safety and security, and medical and legal advisors.

Shareholders and the public. Depending on the size of the organization, an incident of workplace violence may draw the attention of directors and shareholders. An incident may cause concern in the community, especially if there is injury or loss of life to its members. The organization may suffer a loss of public trust, damage to its reputation and public image, dilution of value, and loss of business relationships. Many times, workplace violence draws the attention of the media and may necessitate a coordinated public response.

Law enforcement. In addition to managing the impact on employees and their families, an incident of workplace violence may subject the organization to the intervention of outside interests. Criminal actions may involve more than one level of law enforcement with jurisdiction to interview witnesses and make arrests. Government agencies, such as OSHA and its state counterparts, may have authority to conduct investigations, interview victims and witnesses, and issue citations, assess penalties and, in extreme cases, impose criminal sanctions. 

Impact on employees

For the victims and witnesses of workplace violence and domestic violence in the workplace and their families, the impact can be physical, mental, emotional and economic, and it can be catastrophic. For victims of domestic violence in the workplace, special concerns include security, liability, management issues, performance and productivity issues, and physical and mental health care. Employers may expect employee victims of domestic abuse to miss work, to work more slowly, to have to do work over again and to feel unable to work.

Employer Responses to Workplace Violence

The SHRM Workplace Violence Survey charted employer responses to threats of workplace violence. According to HR professionals, 47 percent of organizations have responded to employee threats of violence by immediate termination. Twenty-nine percent indicated that the employee would be suspended, and another 31 percent stated that the employee would be given a written warning.

Following an incident of violence in the workplace, employers may become more vigilant in overall enforcement of conduct and behavior standards and in administering disciplinary procedures for inappropriate behavior. See, Managing Difficult Employees and Disruptive Behaviors.

Physical and Technological Security Measures

Security measures to prevent workplace violence include premises security (e.g., access control systems, intrusion alarm systems, closed circuit television systems, lighting, procedures, protocol and policies) and data security (e.g., measures to prevent unauthorized use of employer computer systems and other forms of electronic communication).

Failing to provide reasonable security for the premises may expose an employer to liability should employees suffer injury, loss or death that might have been prevented by reasonable measures. Many organizations have systems in place to limit or monitor access of nonemployees to the premises, including:

  • Limited public access to all or portions of the building.
  • Check-in or sign-in desk to screen visitors.
  • Increased lighting on the grounds or parking lots.
  • Access-card entry systems.
  • ID cards for employees and visitors.
  • Video surveillance inside and outside the building.
  • Security guards patrolling buildings, grounds or parking lots.
  • Escort service to and from the parking lot for employees after hours.
  • Metal detectors at building entry points.
  • Cabs for employees working late.

Prevention and Mitigation Programs

Employers can take many approaches to make the work environment healthy and safe and to protect employees and others from workplace violence and domestic violence in the workplace:

  • Investigate a job applicant’s work experience, character, criminal history and other relevant data prior to hiring. See, Conducting Background Investigations and Reference Checks.
  • Train managers and supervisors on the early warning signs of potential violence and how to address those warning signs.
  • Implement a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program that includes a policy setting the framework and guidelines.
  • Communicate with employees that the organization wants to know when threats or incidents occur and that it is serious about handling those problems.
  • Make a good faith effort to investigate complaints where there is a reasonable concern that the employee’s behavior might cause harm to himself/herself or to others.
  • Develop protocol for conducting internal investigations concerning the reported behavior, threats or violent acts.
  • Conduct periodic risk assessments as part of the prevention policy to determine your organization’s vulnerabilities—both inside and outside of the workplace. Tie assessments to safety audits to identify problems early.
  • Implement access control on a regular basis. It can take various forms, including sign-in sheets and a camera system.
  • Clearly communicate the reason for security procedures, and tell employees that precautions extend to even persons familiar to the employer, such as an employee’s family members or friends.
  • Identify to all employees the point person or office for communicating any potential workplace violence threat or concern.

Tips to develop a workplace violence protection program

Below are some proactive approaches for developing a workplace violence prevention program:

  • Review company policies.
  • Train supervisors to avoid negligent hiring and retention.
  • Communicate the emergency action plan to all personnel and related agencies.
  • Practice the emergency action plan.
  • Appoint a public information representative for the company.
  • Train employees in CPR and first aid.
  • Offer an employee assistance program (EAP), and educate the employees regarding its services.
  • Locate and have available blueprints of the facility.

See, SHRM and ASIS International’s Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention: American National Standard (PFD) and Conducting Background Investigations and Reference Checks.

Domestic violence in the workplace: Prevention measures and assistance to victims

As more states and local governments pass laws protecting the workplace rights of victims of domestic or sexual violence, employers—even those in states that have not passed such laws—should establish a written policy on domestic violence, including leave requests and related issues. See, Domestic Violence at Work and Domestic Violence Takes its Toll at Work.

Employers should consider instituting a policy covering intimate partner violence, providing access to experts and information to assist victims, offering support through EAPs, providing extra employment security and granting time off when needed.

Employers should learn about the specific requirements of the state laws applicable to their organization. If a state (PDF) has a specific law regarding workplace domestic violence, an employer should develop a policy for domestic violence leave that complies with the law, either by incorporating it into existing policy or by having a separate stand-alone policy. Employers should also think about what type of documentation to require before leave is to be granted. Any policy must take into account employee privacy. Information concerning domestic violence or sexual abuse victims must be kept confidential.

Employers may consider other low-cost accommodations, such as the following:

  • Offering the services of the employee assistance program.
  • Asking the victim what changes can be made to the work environment that would make him or her feel safer.
  • Save any threatening messages received at the workplace for future legal action.
  • Erect barricades—such as plants and partitions—around the employee’s work area so that the perpetrator cannot walk directly to him or her.
  • Give the employee priority parking and an escort to and from the parking area.
  • Change the employee’s office phone number, and remove the employee’s name from automated contact lists.
  • Install panic buttons for the employee and receptionist.
  • Ask local police to patrol the parking area.
  • Educate employees companywide on domestic violence, pulling resources from local domestic violence organizations, the police department and the district attorney’s office.

If the employee refuses help or denies that any abuse exists, but the employer still suspects that the employee is being abused and that the abuser might come to the workplace, the employer still has a responsibility to protect the employee and co-workers on the premises. Employers should still take reasonable steps and educate the workforce about possible threats, including telling security officers to be on the lookout for the abuser.


1 ASIS International and the Society for Human Resource Management. (2011). Workplace violence prevention and intervention: American national standard. Retrieved from here.

2 Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. (2011). 2011 Liberty Mutual workplace safety index. Retrieved from here

3 Ibid.

4 Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (1970). Sec. 5 duties. Retrieved from

5 Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. (2011). 2011 Liberty Mutual workplace safety index. Retrieved from here

Tools and Templates

Information tools


Agencies and organizations


Relevant laws



1 United States Department of Labor. (2009). Safety and health standards: Occupational safety and health. Employment Law Guide. Retrieved at

Acknowledgement—This article was first prepared for SHRM Online by Margaret R. Bryant, a lawyer, freelance writer and editor with 25 years of experience in the field of legal and business communications. In addition to relying on her own professional expertise and research in developing this treatment, the author has incorporated existing SHRM Online content.

Publication Note—This treatment was thoroughly reviewed and updated in October 2012.    For the most recent developments, see articles archived under the Violence topic in the Safety & Security Discipline.

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