Chapter 21 Special Topics

Section 5, Workplace Violence


Violence has become a reality for virtually any type of workplace and any type of employee--creating an increasingly pervasive sense of vulnerability among the American workforce. Workplace violence can have devastating effects on the productivity of organizations and on the quality of life of employees. The reality and risks of this growing category of violence must be examined with serious consideration given to what can be done by employers, supervisors, employees, and community resources to provide effective assistance and support to victims of workplace violence.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this section, students will understand the following concepts:


Violence in America has now invaded the workplace, putting at risk the safety, productivity, and health of American workers. Research clearly shows a significant increase in the amount of workplace violence and conflict in recent years. Unfortunately, workplace violence can happen anywhere, anytime. Whenever such a violent incident occurs, great potential exists for physical, emotional, and financial impact on both direct and indirect victims, as well as the whole community. In order to deal effectively with the victimization and its consequences, the employee-victims need specialized assistance, information, and referrals. The reaction, support, and assistance offered by management and crisis responders are very important to survivors of workplace violence. Information exchange, identification of effective responses, and training must take place in order to improve the capacity and preparedness of American workplaces and victim services to respond collaboratively and effectively to victims of workplace violence.

Statistical Overview

Types of Workplace Violence

Workplace violence encompasses such crimes as property crimes, harassment, threats and intimidation, physical assaults, sexual assaults, stalking, and homicide. Four general types of offenders commit violence in the workplace:

This basic typology was first identified by the California Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Occupational Safety and Health in Guidelines for Workplace Security (1995). Cal/OSHA generally identified Types I, II, and III. In the above typology, Type III has been separated into two distinct types of employment-related involvement with the workplace: direct involvement, where the perpetrator is a current or former employee; and indirect involvement, where the perpetrator has (or had) a relationship with a current employee, but has never been employed at the workplace.

Types I and II are the most prevalent incidents of workplace violence in the United States. In reality, there are far more violent acts directed at workers than caused by workers. However, Type III and IV incidents are most often the focus of media attention involving workplace violence.

Occupational Risks for Workplace Violence

Data from the National Crime Victimization Surveys for 1992 to 1996 (BJS 1998) indicate that the following occupations have the highest rates of workplace violence per 1,000 workers:

In 1996, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health identified ten factors that may increase a worker's risk for workplace assault:

Workers who have been interviewed following their workplace victimizations have strongly advised that all workers, supervisors, and managers need to acknowledge the problem of workplace violence, advocate for safe work environments, and train workers in precautionary measures and in what to expect if they do become victims (Atkinson 1991).

Victim Impact and Emotional Consequences

Whenever a violent incident occurs in the workplace, great potential for physical, psychological, and financial damage exists. In the aftermath of the violence, the survivors, including those who were injured, those who were targeted but missed, witnesses, co-workers, family members, friends, and other people in the organization, can be emotionally devastated. A person's entire life, including relationships with family and the ability to work and carry out everyday activities, can be affected. For the survivors and their co-workers, the workplace is no longer a safe place--it has become a threatening environment. When workplace violence occurs, employees generally have a concern about the possibility of a reoccurrence. The more meaningless and arbitrary the incident, the more vulnerable and unsafe the survivors seem to feel.

Survivors experience three general types of posttraumatic consequences in the hours and days following work-related traumatic incidents (Bergmann 1997):

All of the posttrauma consequences experienced by any victim of violent crime are generally also experienced by a victim of workplace violence. Although the impact is much the same, the workplace violence victim is expected to return to "the scene of the crime" day after day and to continue to function efficiently. Long-term problems can develop if posttraumatic consequences are not managed. With immediate and effective responses to work-related trauma, most of these long-term problems can be prevented or managed, and the workers and the organization can resume regular activities.

The overall goals for victims of workplace violence in dealing with their emotional reactions to the traumatic event are the decrease of distressing symptoms, the enhancement of emotional expression, and the assimilation of the traumatic experience (Baron 1993). The process of resolution can be facilitated by family and friends who acknowledge the trauma, allow the individual to talk about it, and accept the uneven road to resolution.

Employees who receive information about posttrauma consequences, especially the normal psychological consequences of exposure to violent incidents, can better manage their feelings and reactions to workplace violence after it happens. Detailed discussion of the incident with others is often an element of posttraumatic resolution. If the violent incident affected a large portion of the workforce, the employer may consider bringing professional help to the workplace to assist employees in discussing and dealing with all that the violent incident has precipitated. Community services and resources are available for crime victims in many jurisdictions. Community victim advocacy services are especially vital to domestic violence and stalking victims. Supervisors and human resource directors should check into the available community services and provide workers with the names of available referrals and resources.

An effective response to violent incidents that occur within a workplace should include the following strategies and interventions (Bergmann 1997):

The reaction, support, and assistance offered by management and those around them are very important to survivors of workplace violence. Secondary victimization occurs when employers, managers, employees, or those contracted by an organization respond in one of the following ways:

One study of the effectiveness of posttraumatic services concludes that those receiving immediate assistance have had fewer incidences of permanent disability, were less likely to seek legal action against the company, and saved companies an average of about $37,000, as compared to companies in which employees did not receive timely help. There appear to be significant results in the nonfinancial area as well. Employees feel very positive about their employers and believe that the company is concerned about their well-being when efforts are made to respond to traumatic incidents in the workplace. This often translates into greater productivity and fewer absences (Bergmann 1997).

In 1993, the Northwestern National Life Insurance company conducted a survey on workplace violence. The survey was based upon telephone interviews with 600 full-time employees who worked thirty-five hours or more per week. Workers with employers who reported effective human resource programs, such as grievance procedures, protection from and recourse for harassment, and security programs, had lower rates of workplace violence. For example, only 18 percent of those employees whose employers had a grievance, harassment, and security program reported being attacked, threatened, or harassed in the past twelve months versus 31 percent of the employees whose employers did not have such programs. Northwestern National concludes that improved interpersonal relations and effective prevention programs can significantly reduce the levels of violence in the workplace (Northwestern National Life 1993).

Employer Responsibilities and Legal Duties

Many organizations are now looking at what can be done about the issue of workplace violence. One of the most important starting points is to acknowledge that it can happen. The majority of workplaces feel that "it could never happen here." This denial is one of the major barriers in addressing the issue of workplace violence. Conversely, many work organizations have taken a "zero tolerance" stand on any type of violence or harassment in the workplace. By taking this stance, employees are clearly made aware that violence, aggressive behavior, and harassment will not be tolerated. This not only provides a deterrent effect, but also gives employees a feeling that their safety is important to the organization.

The key to reduction of violence is to discuss the possibility before it happens and have a response plan in place. Policies and procedures are required to effectively handle the problem of workplace violence. Current statistics are that only 44.2 percent of the violent victimizations sustained at work are reported to the police (BJS 1998). When no system is in place, many employees will not bring concerns or fears to management. Employers must create an atmosphere where workers are encouraged to report threats if they occur. Too often in the past, employers have ignored threats, and violence has occurred, often with fatal results. Employers have a legal duty under the negligent retention doctrine to heed notice of threats and harassment that occur within the workplace and adequately respond to employees' complaints and warnings about potentially dangerous employees (Kinney and Johnson 1993).

A vital part of any workplace violence prevention plan is the development of guidelines for workers to report either actual violent incidents or suspected trouble. The guidelines stipulate that supervisors should be employees' first contact. If the incident requires further action or investigation, the chain of involvement is usually human resources, the legal department, and then security (Anfuso 1994). If neither management nor security respond to an employee's report, the employee should then also report any incident or threat of violence to the local law enforcement authorities.

Because employers are required by law to provide adequate security, an employer can be held liable for violence that occurs in the workplace for failure to provide adequate security (Gagnon 1995). Employers and employees stand in a special relationship, and courts have held that employers have a duty to provide employees with a safe workplace. Employers may also be liable under the legal theory of respondeat superior and negligent hiring or employment retention for assaults committed by co-workers. Many court actions have raised questions of negligent security practices as well as the removal of potential hazards (Baron 1993). Administrative controls such as conflict resolution training and requiring that employees not work alone are suggested. This is geared toward controlling violence from customers and clients but can also include disgruntled employees--especially when layoffs or termination occur.

In-service training regarding workplace safety is an integral part of creating a safe environment. Topics can include first aid and CPR training, safety awareness, personal safety training, and training to recognize potentially violent situations in the workplace. Enhancing employee security is one way of letting employees know that management is concerned for their welfare.

Trauma response plans should include training programs to increase information about trauma and its psychological impact and preparation of rapid response personnel to assist in crisis intervention and peer support. They should also include procedures for monitoring individuals during emotional turmoil and recovery phases following trauma so that effective mental health referrals can be made when necessary. Employees must also know what community services and resources are available for crime victims. Victim service professionals should be aware of and linked to community efforts to respond as necessary.

There should be a written plan for handling violence that includes details concerning what will happen before, during, and after any incidents. Having a trauma plan in place ahead of time will help a company make it through a violent crisis. Management needs to make some decisions about workplace violence on a case-by-case basis and, at the same time, have written protocol and procedures in place to address all potential situations before they erupt into violence.

A threat management policy should include the following elements:

The establishment of a nonharassment policy is essential. Most of those who have committed acts of violence in the workplace have been described by co-workers and supervisors as intimidators (Northwestern National Life 1993). New and current employees should be required to read and sign an acknowledgment of this policy. This procedure puts all employees on notice and makes administrative actions against violators much less difficult for management to enforce.

Red Flags for Employee Behavior

Management's most important line of defense in preventing workplace violence is to combine preventive human resource practices with close attention to the warning signs that may predict violent behavior. A plan should be in place with a management team trained on what to watch for and what procedures to follow. Red flags for stress in the workplace include layoffs, reductions in force, and labor disputes. Managers must be trained so that they can properly discuss these realities with employees.

According to John E. Douglas, former chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Investigative Support Unit, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, some of the potential employee behaviors (Burgess and Douglas 1994) that should place managers and co-workers on alert include the following:

Caution: This list is merely to help develop awareness and recognition of potential risk behaviors. There is no definitive checklist of behavioral indicators for a potential perpetrator of workplace violence.

Bank Robbery

Victims of bank robbery can include bank customers, bank employees (tellers, managers, and security guards), law enforcement officers, and other members of the community. A common reaction by tellers, the largest group affected by bank robberies, is a tremendous amount of self-blame. Bank tellers, in the aftermath of a bank robbery, feel that they should have been able to do something to stop the crime. While bank robbery is generally not considered a personal crime but a crime against the bank, most tellers take it very personally. In some instances, tellers are injured, taken hostage, or even killed.


The type of individuals injured, killed or taken hostage during violations of the Federal Bank Robbery and Incidental Crime Statute, 18 U.S.C. 2113 (1994) are as follows:

Type of Victim Injuries Deaths Hostages Taken

Total 167 23 *61

Customer 23 0 45

Employee 88 2 84

Employee family 0 0 3

Perpetrator 25 16 n/a

Law officer 16 2 0

Guard 12 3 9

Other 3 0 11

*These hostages were taken in 36 separate incidents.

(The preceding statistics and chart are from the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bank Crime Statistics, Federally Insured Financial Institutions, January 1, 1994-December 31, 1994, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1995.)


Re-occurring reactions expressed by victims of bank robberies include:

Because bank robberies occur in all jurisdictions (large urban communities and small rural towns), victimized bank tellers are left with the fear that there is no "safe place" to move to reestablish their sense of security. Many leave their jobs, due in large part to this fear and the resulting stress.

In addition, law enforcement officials and the employer may look at the teller suspiciously, or even fire the employee, if he or she did not give the perpetrator bait money or the dye packs that some banks employ to intercept bank robbers. Law enforcement may not understand crisis reactions to trauma when the victim may not remember or follow bank procedures. Rather, the victim responded in what he or she felt safe in doing at the time of the robbery. Thus, the teller may, in some cases, be viewed by law enforcement officials as a possible suspect "of an inside job."

While many banks are supportive of their employees in the aftermath of a robbery, some banks cause a secondary victimization, isolating the employee from other workers while the investigation is being conducted.


When a financial institution is robbed, there is an obvious monetary loss to the institution; however, there are additional costs to financial institutions that go unnoticed. There is a direct link between trauma suffered by victims of bank robbery and the amount of indirect loss to financial institutions caused by the robbery itself (Powers 1989). Costs of bank robbery to the banking industry include the following:


In addition to the more immediate crisis services that victims may require on-scene, victim advocates need to ensure that when a suspect has been apprehended and/or charged, the bank teller is notified, as well as other victims who were present during the robbery. They need to inform victims how the case will be processed throughout the system (whether federal or state), assist victims in filling out victim impact statements, and inform victims of their right to allocution during sentencing. Victims may also qualify for restitution payments for time lost from work and health- and mental health-related expenses that resulted from the bank robbery.

Victim advocates should also provide bank robbery victims with information about victim compensation, including the application process, and assist them as needed in completing necessary forms.

Domestic Violence in the Workplace

Until recently, domestic violence was not an issue that was high on the business community's agenda. Even though almost half of the American workforce is made up of women, only a handful of workplaces have taken leadership roles on this issue in the last decade. This is changing, as a growing number of employers recognize the serious impact of domestic violence on both their employees' lives and their bottom lines.

Women who have been abused take the violence with them to work, and it shows--in lost productivity, stress, increased health care costs, employee absenteeism, turnover, and sometimes, workplace violence. When an employee is the target of attack in the workplace by an intimate, other employees may also be placed at risk. Whether or not employers acknowledge it, domestic violence is a problem that does not disappear when women leave home and enter the workplace. In fact, a large percentage of abused women spend much of their time on the job. They work with long sleeves and high collars covering the bruises. They come to work in spite of headaches, physical injuries, depression, and chronic anxiety. Often they work because they have to in order to support their families.

While the following indicators could be explained by something other than domestic violence, they also could be possible signs that an employee is being battered:


Employers can help create a workplace environment supported by comprehensive, legally sound policies that both assist women employees affected by violence and ensure that workplaces address the serious legal issues raised as a result of violence against women. Employers who take action will not only avoid liability costs but also make an important difference in the lives of women and improve productivity and safety in their workplaces. As stated in a U.S. Office of Personnel Management guidebook for managers:

If somebody is threatening, harassing, or injuring another person, it is a criminal act. Forget all the polite rules about ignoring lovers' quarrels, because this is another kind of situation altogether . . . Never underestimate the possible dangerousness of someone who batters, stalks, or otherwise mistreats another person, whatever their relationship may be (Tyler 1996, 33).

There are many steps employers can take depending on a workplace's level of commitment, available resources, and size. Possible steps might include the following:

The business community is beginning to accept the reality that employers have both a legal obligation and a social responsibility to prevent violence against their employees and to respond to such violence and its effects when it occurs. By addressing the effects of domestic violence in the workplace, companies will reap the double benefits of limiting legal liability and maximizing employees' productivity and contributions to the company.

Responding to Workplace Violence in Correctional Settings

(The following section is based on Responding to Workplace Violence and Staff Victimization in Probation, Parole and Corrections, 1998, written by Anne Seymour and sponsored by the National Center for Victims of Crime with support from U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime.)

Physical assaults. Sexual harassment. Hostage-taking incidents. Spitting and throwing feces and urine. Rape. And the ultimate violation: murder.

What to some people appears to simply be a litany of their worst violent crime fears is, for many correctional professionals, a daily threat in their workplace. While much attention has been focused on increasing incidents of workplace violence in America, less attention has been paid to the violent acts committed against those who dedicate their lives to public safety and protection: corrections, probation and parole professionals. Since 1990, the Office for Victims of Crime has sought to address workplace violence in correctional settings through training and technical assistance initiatives sponsored by the National Center for Victims of Crime, with support from all major national correctional associations.

There is a flawed assumption that people who choose corrections as their profession must accept risks to their personal safety, and that being victimized is "just part of the job." Certainly, corrections is a tough job that is made even more difficult by the threat and carrying out of violent acts. And such difficulties are enhanced when correctional agencies fail to adopt strong policies and procedures that promote worker safety and victim assistance when an employee is victimized on- or off-the-job.

The issues of violence and victimization in correctional settings--including institutions, jails, youth detention centers, probation and parole--can differ significantly from similar issues in the general population:

These differences may affect the scope and sufficiency of the agency's services for staff who fall prey to workplace violence. Recognizing and understanding these unique characteristics are two of the most important steps toward formulating an appropriate agency response that best meets the special needs of correctional employees.


Every correctional agency has an important obligation to its employees to promote their safety and well-being. In order to shape the issues that must be addressed, California Youth Authority Assistant Director, Prevention and Victim Services Sharon English and public safety consultant Anne Seymour developed ten suggestions for agencies and administrators to respond to workplace violence:

1. All corrections, probation, and parole agencies should have clear policies and procedures for responding to workplace violence that encourage reporting of criminal incidents, and provide support for the victimized staff, witnesses, and entire unit or office in which the critical incident occurred.

2. All agencies should have emergency response teams available around the clock, with members trained in victimology theory, responses, and interventions.

3. Staff safety training programs should incorporate victim assistance as well as worker safety and critical incident prevention.

4. Management and administrative staff should be professionally trained in death notification procedures that include in-person sensitive notifications, crisis intervention, and on-site and continuing support for murdered employees' family members.

5. Supervisors and managers must receive training on how victimization affects their employees' career choices, how victimized employees might treat inmates, parolees, or probationers, and how victimized staff are viewed by their co-workers.

6. Procedures on staff reintegration must be established and practiced, focusing not only on the victimized staff member but also on his or her professional peers.

7. Corrections professionals should be involved in any disciplinary hearings or criminal proceedings resulting from their victimization, including notification of case status, the right to be present at key proceedings, submission of a victim impact statement, and protection from intimidation, harassment, or harm.

8. Corrections has an ongoing responsibility to the family of victimized staff members. Efforts should be made to provide them with information, input and support, not only at the crisis stage of the victimization but also in the months that follow.

9. Following a staff victimization or critical incident, agencies should establish policies and procedures for rumor control that include a brief statement of facts for agency employees and the news media.

10. Corrections, probation, and parole agencies should establish strong affiliations with local victim service organizations. Over 9.000 local agencies can provide crisis intervention, support groups for victimized staff and training on victim trauma and reactions following a crime.

Promising Practices

The program's response to bank employees is as follows:

- Immediately following the robbery, a trained crisis response professional goes to the scene of the robbery and provides follow-up visits to bank employees.

- The crisis response professional and trained counselors also provide debriefing to customers, tellers, and staff as well as referrals to local assistance programs.

- The staff provides a workshop for victim tellers every three months where employees are able to tell their stories in a supportive group atmosphere.

- Law enforcement officers attend the workshops to provide case updates.

- An Assistant U.S. Attorney attends the meetings to discuss the court system and to answer any questions about victims' rights.

Workplace Violence Self-Examination

1. What are the four types of workplace violence offenders, and how do they differ?

2. What are some of the factors that may increase a worker's risk for workplace assault?

3. Describe two of the emotional consequences of workplace violence for victims.

4. Name and describe at least three strategies or interventions for effective response to a workplace violence incident.

5. Briefly describe some of the potential employee behaviors that should place managers and co-workers on alert.

6. What are three interventions employers can make on behalf of an employee involved in an abusive relationship?

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