Causes Of Workplace Violence: Here's What You Need To Know
As tempting as it may be to think of workplace violence as a relic of a long-gone past, aggressive outbursts and even workplace homicides have not been eradicated from the modern American enterprise. In fact, it has been reported that, in 2020 alone, workplace assaults resulted in 20,050 injuries and illnesses and 392 fatalities.
This article talks about what constitutes workplace violence in the US, the causes of workplace violence, and what companies must to do to better protect their employees from such incidents.
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What Is Workplace Violence?
Workplace violence -- also known as "occupational violence" -- can take many forms, from verbal threats/verbal abuse to physical assaults to even homicide. Any act or threat of physical violence, intimidation, harassment or other threatening disruptive behavior taking place at the work site is considered workplace violence. Some examples of violent acts and violent behavior are:
- Threatening behavior: shaking fists, throwing objects, causing property damage, screaming, getting very close "up in someone's face", etc.
- Verbal abuse: insults, swearing, threats of violence, etc.
- Written threats: menacing letters/notes/emails
- Physical assaults: shoving, pushing, kicking, punching, spitting, stabbing, strangling etc.
- Sexual assaults: unwelcome touching, grabbing, rape
Causes And Types Of Workplace Violence
Workplace violence happens by a variety of perpetrators with any number of intentions. Let's review the four main dynamics:
Employee-On-Employee Violence In The Workplace
Known as "lateral" or "horizontal" violence in the workplace, worker-on-worker violence has existed since individual humans had to cooperate with others different than themselves (i.e. "since the beginning of time").
The American workplace is a particularly diverse work environment, with employees of all genders, races, sexual orientations, religions, ages, and health conditions sharing work spaces and professional responsibilities -- and this does not always result in a harmonious cultural synergy! In addition to differences in personality and temperament, employees experience workplace tensions on the basis of their differences in lifestyle, appearance, core values, and separate expectations toward genders.
Office politics can play a role in employees becoming overly competitive or resenting each other over achievements, promotions, networking opportunities with the higher-ups, etc.
It is no surprise that employees also turn their anger toward their higher-ups -- for overworking them, or overlooking them for a promotion, or otherwise singling them out for negative treatment. If such resentment festers for too long, it can explode into a violent "showdown".
Likewise, angry ex-employees can sometimes return to their former place of employment to confront "on their own terms" the boss they felt treated them unfairly.
Customer-On-Employee Violence In The workplace
When a customer, client, or medical patient threatens or attacks an employee, it is commonly termed as "type 2 workplace violence".
Notoriously, customers can get upset over anything -- from having their name misspelled on a coffee cup to having to wear a facemask on the airplane. Depending on how stressed they are in other aspects of their life, they can "blow up" at random store clerks, restaurant servers, flight attendants, cab drivers, nurses, customer service representatives, etc. Attorneys -- especially divorce lawyers -- have been known face violence from unhappy former clients or the unhappy ex-spouses of their former clients...
In some instances, the violence may not be intentional, as in cases where a hospital patient is medicated, psychotic, or otherwise "not in their right mind" when they act out in aggression (even if unintentional, it's best to report such incidents for the occupational safety of others).
Personal Relationship-Caused Violence In The Workplace
If there are problems in the personal life of the employee -- such as domestic violence -- they can spill into the workplace. "Wound up" domestic partners, family members, exes, or personal enemies can show up to a person's place of work with the intention to continue their conflict or to take revenge.
Criminal Intent-Caused Violence In The Workplace
There are times when violence comes "out of the left field" -- unrelated to the company or any particular employee. Those instances of violence not motivated by a grudge, but by criminality. This is the case, for example, when grocery store employees are attacked or held up at gunpoint for the cash register.
Professions With The Highest Risk Factors For Workplace Violence Incidents
As you can probably surmise from the above descriptions, some occupations lend themselves to higher instances of workplace violence than others.
High-risk occupations for workplace violence include:
- healthcare workers
- customer service clerks
- delivery drivers
- public service workers
- airline workers
- law enforcement personnel
- workers in establishments that serve alcohol
- taxi/Uber drivers
- any workers exchanging money with the general public
Workers operating solo or in small groups are statistically more prone to experience incidents of workplace violence than those work among numerous colleagues.
Warning Signs Of Employees "Ready To Crack"
In general, workplace violence occurs the most when people are extremely stressed out over things such as:
- A company merger with uncertain outcome
- Being laid off/fired
- Money problems (be it from insufficient earnings or a gambling problem)
- A personal loss or tragedy, such as divorce or death of a loved one
- The holiday season (family holidays can be a particularly tense and difficult time for some people -- for example, domestic violence spikes every year around Christmas)
When someone is about to "explode", the warning signs include:
- restless pacing/repetitive moments
- clenched fists/tight jaw
- exaggerated/sharp/violent gestures
- changes in voice
What Employers Should Do To Prevent Workplace Violence
Workplace violence cannot always be predicted or controlled but it absolutely can be minimized -- especially in the case of employee-on-employee aggression.
Random "loose cannons" do exist in the world, but most individuals only resort to violence as a last-ditch effort to be "heard/seen", after having had their needs ignored or invalidated too long. As such, a large part of employees' general well-being is shaped by their work environment.
Workplace Violence Prevention Strategies
An employer can institute a variety of measures to reduce/eliminate the "lateral" violence among their employees:
Familiarizing employees with the Department of Labor's official workplace violence policy.
Training the workforce how to spot potential violence brewing in their midst, de-escalate it if necessary, and report it to the proper authorities. Additional conflict resolution, stress management, diversity & inclusion, bystander intervention, and anti-harassment & discrimination trainings all contribute to the peacefulness of the workplace.
Having the HR work with an employee assistance program (EAP) that will provide employees and employers with additional resources on combatting occupational violence. And when an employee is showing warning signs of potential violence, the EAP can provide counseling and other de-escalation measures to avert a "breakdown".
Running a thorough pre-employment screening/background check on every new hire.
Investing in the safety and health of the workplace culture in general (which includes training the leadership to be attentive, respectful, and fair with the workforce).
Additionally, every employer should have a developed protocol for how to handle incidents and complaints of workplace violence -- and have mechanisms in place for investigating them (with appropriate expert assistance, if necessary) and taking according disciplinary measures to ensure a fair and safe work environment for everyone involved.
EasyLlama's Got Just The Training For You!
Violence in the workplace is morally wrong and also terrible for business. Unhappy and fearful employees make for unproductive employees who don't stick around. Complaints and law suits alleging workplace violence cost a lot of money. And the company reputation, once tarnished with violence, is difficult-to-impossible to rebuild.
As mentioned, preventive measures like training are key to stopping workplace violence from hurting and traumatizing the workforce and harming one's business.
And EasyLlama has all the training for workplace violence scenarios! EasyLlama's workplace violence prevention e-training program, amongst other things:
- reviews laws against workplace violence
- defines/provides examples of different types of workplace violence
- examines the obstacles in the way of reporting violence at the workplace
- teaches to recognize the warning signs/potential triggers preceding violent outbursts
- instructs how to respond safely and appropriately to workplace violence
Your employees with have a fast and easy time passing the program -- and will walk away much better prepared to handle the challenges and potentiality of workplace violence.
Sign up with EasyLlama and make your company a safer place to work!
Written by: Maria Malyk