How to Prevent Violence in the Workplace

Workplace violence is a serious issue facing employers nationwide, as news accounts all too commonly tell of horrific acts committed by employees or former employees. Though it can sometimes be difficult to imagine an employee or coworker becoming dangerous, ignoring warning signs can be fatal. This post will discuss how to recognize potential threats before they materialize, how to respond to them, and ways to preemptively reduce the likelihood of such threats.

Defining Workplace Violence

Workplace violence is not a recent phenomenon. One of the bloodiest school massacres in U.S. history dates back to May 18, 1927 in Michigan, when an outgoing school board treasurer set off an explosion that killed 38 elementary school children and six adults and injured 58 other people. The term “going postal” was coined on August 20, 1986, when a part-time postal worker facing possible termination walked into the post office in Oklahoma where he worked, shot 14 coworkers, then took his own life. Since then, many Americans have been victims of various forms of workplace violence at the hands of their coworkers.

The definition of workplace violence is broader than is typically assumed. The most publicized workplace violence events are mass shootings or other multiple homicides, but a Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that 80 percent of workplace violence incidents are not deadly. They involve assaults, stalking, verbal threats, domestic violence situations that spill over into the workplace, harassment (including sexual harassment), and physical and/or emotional abuse.

While threats are sometimes obvious—an employee who boasts of his weapons stockpile or explicitly warns coworkers of some sort of “payback” for unfair treatment—other warning signs may be harder to detect. Nonetheless, most individuals who commit acts of violence at their workplaces first exhibit warning signs that are often ignored or downplayed by their employers. Perceived injustice plays an important role in many incidents; an employee believes he is underpaid, overworked, wrongfully terminated, or otherwise treated unfairly, and seeks to get even by acting out against his employer and coworkers.

The following are a few specific indicators that should cause employers to pay particular attention to employees who may pose a risk:

  • Verbal statements of intent to harm coworkers;
  • Evidence of intent to steal, sabotage, or damage equipment or property;
  • Acting belligerently or engaging in fights or physical acts of violence;
  • Expressing distrust of authority and/or being hypersensitive to criticism;
  • Suicidal statements and/or unprovoked outbursts;
  • Describing weapons owned and/or expressing intent to bring weapons to the workplace.

Colorado employers are legally required by both state and federal law to provide a safe workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) requires employers to ensure that their workplace is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious harm to [their] employees.” The Colorado’s Workers’ Compensation Act requires employers to insure for job-related injuries, and a host of state and federal civil rights laws require employers to protect their workers from various forms of harassment. Given these requirements to keep workers safe form workplace violence, lawsuits for civil liability could be based on theories of negligent hiring, retention, or failure to adequately supervise high risk employees. For both practical and legal reasons, employers should remain alert to potential threats, and take appropriate action when threats are detected.

Taking Preventive Action

It may seem impossible that our employees and coworkers would harm us, but when someone demonstrates threatening behavior, that is a real possibility. Of course, if a violent situation is unfolding, call 911. If there is not yet violence, but it appears that an employee poses an immediate threat of harm, Colorado Revised Statute § 13-14-102 provides a way for Colorado employers to petition local courts for a temporary and/or permanent civil protection order to prevent threatened harm in the workplace. A protection order gives law enforcement a basis for arresting a violator and it demonstrates to the subject employee and other employees that the employer takes threats seriously. Similar laws exist in many other states.

Seeking a protection order is not appropriate every time an employee engages in misconduct or is terminated; it is a very serious legal action that may appear permanently on background checks and other records. A mental health professional or attorney should be consulted to help determine whether obtaining a civil protection order is the right course of action.

Colorado’s statute makes the process for procuring a protection order relatively straightforward so that victims of domestic and workplace violence can obtain one as speedily as possible. Although protection orders can be obtained without legal representation, it is a fast-paced and intense process, and an experienced attorney can be vital in navigating the court system, ensuring documents are properly completed, preparing for hearings, and promptly securing a civil protection order against a potentially violent individual.

Strategies for Prevention

Long before a civil protection order becomes a consideration, there are a number of actions employers should take to prevent employees from ever becoming violent.

  • Adopt a formal workplace violence prevention policy and regular training program, and clearly communicate protocols to managers and employees;

  • Foster a climate of trust and respect among colleagues, and eradicate any culture of bullying or harassment;
  • Take steps to reduce stress and negativity, which can lead to problematic behavior;
  • Regularly update security systems and review security protocols;
  • Identify and screen out potentially violent individuals during the hiring process;
  • Carefully document threats and responses to them, and establish avenues for employees to document and report threats;
  • Terminate employees with care by involving witnesses or security when necessary.

Employers do not want their employees harmed, and also face significant criticism or liability when acts of workplace violence occur, so they have considerable incentive to prevent such acts. By following the steps above and consulting reliable legal counsel when necessary, an employer can significantly decrease the risk of violence in the workplace, avoid financial and legal damages, and protect the company and employees from harm.


Featured Image by Rebecca Sidebotham.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations