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Preventing Workplace Violence

As with most other risks, prevention of workplace violence begins with planning. It is easier to persuade managers to focus on the problem after a violent act has taken place than it is to get them to act before anything has happened. The more difficult the decision to plan in advance, the more logical it is. Any organization, large or small, will be more able to spot potential dangers and defuse them before violence develops and will be able to manage a crisis if its executives have considered the issue beforehand and have prepared policies, practices and structures to deal with it.

Forming a Workplace Violence Strategy

In forming an effective workplace violence strategy, important principles include:

  • There must be support from the top. If a company’s senior executives are not truly committed to a preventive program, it is unlikely to be effectively implemented.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Effective plans may share a number of features, but a good plan must be tailored to the needs, resources and circumstances of a particular employer and a particular work force.
  • A plan should be proactive, not reactive.
  • A plan should take into account the workplace culture: work atmosphere, relationships, traditional management styles, etc. If there are elements in that culture that appear to foster a toxic climate—tolerance of bullying or intimidation, lack of trust among workers or between workers and management, high levels of stress, frustration and anger, poor communication, inconsistent discipline and erratic enforcement of company policies—these should be called to the attention of top executives for remedial action.
  • Planning for and responding to workplace violence calls for expertise from a number of perspectives. A workplace violence prevention plan will be most effective if it is based on a multidisciplinary team approach.
  • Managers should take an active role in communicating the workplace violence policy to employees. They must be alert to warning signs and know the violence prevention plan and response. They must also seek advice and assistance when there are indications of a problem.
  • Practise your plan. No matter how thorough or well-conceived, preparation won’t do any good if an emergency happens and no one remembers or carries out what was planned. Training exercises must include senior executives who will be making decisions in a real incident. Exercises must be followed by careful evaluation and changes to fix whatever weaknesses have been revealed.
  • Re-evaluate, rethink and revise. Policies and practices should not be set in stone. Personnel, work environments, business conditions and society all change and evolve. A prevention program must change and evolve with them.

The components of a workplace violence prevention program can include:

  • A statement of the employer’s violence policy and complementary policies such as those regulating harassment and drug and alcohol use
  • A physical security survey and assessment of premises
  • Procedures for addressing threats and threatening behaviour
  • Designation and training of an incident response team
  • Access to outside resources, such as threat assessment professionals
  • Training of different management and employee groups
  • Crisis response measures
  • Consistent enforcement of behavioural standards, including effective disciplinary procedures.

Written Workplace Violence Policy Statement

Here an employer sets the standard for acceptable workplace behaviour. The statement should affirm the company’s commitment to a safe workplace, employees’ obligation to behave appropriately on the job and the employer’s commitment to take action on any employee’s complaint regarding harassing, threatening and violent behaviour. The statement should be in writing and distributed to employees at all levels.

In defining acts that will not be tolerated, the statement should make clear that not just physical violence but threats, bullying, harassment and possession of weapons are against company policy and are prohibited.

Preventive Practices

Preventive measures can include pre-employment screening, identifying problem situations and risk factors and security preparations:

  • Pre-employment Screening. Identifying and screening out potentially violent people before hiring is an obvious means of preventing workplace violence. Pre-employment screening practices must, however, be consistent with privacy protections and antidiscrimination laws.

A thorough background check can be expensive and time-consuming. The depth of pre-employment scrutiny will vary according to the level and sensitivity of the job being filled, the policies and resources of the prospective employer and possibly differing legal requirements in different provinces. However, as an applicant is examined, the following can raise red flags:

  • A history of drug or alcohol abuse
  • Past conflicts (especially if violence was involved) with co-workers
  • Past convictions for violent crimes

Other red flags can include a defensive, hostile attitude, a history of frequent job changes and a tendency to blame others for problems.

Identifying Problem Situations and Risk Factors of Current Employees

Problem situations—circumstances that may heighten the risk of violence—can involve a particular event or employee, or the workplace as a whole.

No “profile” or litmus test exists to indicate whether an employee might become violent. Instead, it is important for employers and employees alike to remain alert to problematic behaviour that, in combination, could point to possible violence. No one behaviour in and of itself suggests a greater potential for violence, but all must be looked at in totality.

Risk factors at times associated with potential violence include personality conflicts (between co-workers or between worker and supervisor), a mishandled termination or other disciplinary action, bringing weapons onto a work site, drug or alcohol use on the job or a grudge over a real or imagined grievance. Risks can also stem from an employee’s personal circumstances—breakup of a marriage or romantic relationship, other family conflicts, financial or legal problems or emotional disturbance.

Other problematic behaviour can include, but is not limited to:

  • Increasing belligerence
  • Ominous, specific threats
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism
  • Recent acquisition of/fascination with weapons
  • Apparent obsession with a supervisor, co-worker or employee grievance.
  • Preoccupation with violent themes
  • Interest in recently publicized violent events
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Extreme disorganization
  • Noticeable changes in behaviour
  • Homicidal/suicidal comments or threats

Though a suicide threat may not be heard as threatening to others, it is nonetheless a serious danger sign. Some extreme violent acts are in fact suicidal—wounding or killing someone else in the expectation of being killed, a phenomenon known in law enforcement as “suicide by cop.” In addition, many workplace shootings often end in suicide by the offender.


Employee training on ways to respond to and report incidents of workplace violence is necessary, but not a sufficient condition for prevention of workplace violence. Training should increase awareness of workplace violence risks, emphasize the importance of adhering to protective administrative controls and encourage employees to immediately report any suspicious or threatening behaviour. While training is only one component of a successful comprehensive workplace violence prevention program, preventive adjustments by management are equally important.

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