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Summary Article: Violence in the Workplace
From Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society

Workplace violence is one of the most important security issues faced by companies today, as these activities span a lengthy continuum from coworker bullying and intimidation to verbal threats to homicide. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), approximately 1.5 million workers are assaulted and more than 500 people are murdered in the workplace every year in the United States. Despite the dramatic headlines that accompany workplace fatalities, they represented only 0.1% of all violent work incidents in the 1990s. More than three quarters of the incidents involved simple assaults, which are typically attempts to commit an injury or acts that place another in fear of receiving a violent injury.

The U.S. Department of Justice identifies four types of workplace violence, including (1) violent acts by criminals who have no other connection with the workplace but enter to commit robbery or another crime; (2) violence directed at employees by customers, clients, patients, students, inmates, or any others for whom an organization provides services; (3) violence against coworkers, supervisors, or managers by a present or former employee; and (4) violence committed in the workplace by someone who doesn’t work there but has a personal relationship with an employee.

Taxi drivers and clerks working late-night shifts at convenience stores are often subject to the first type of violence. These employees may be injured or further harmed when confronted by criminal activity on the job. The first type of violence is more prevalent in industries where employees work alone or at night, are extensively involved with the public, are located in dangerous neighborhoods, carry or have access to cash, and have a greater likelihood of coming into contact with criminals. Approximately 80% of workplace homicides are the result of this type of violence.

Airline attendants are increasingly experiencing the second category of workplace violence when passengers become unruly, drunk, or otherwise violent while in flight. Airline employees across the United States, Australia, and Switzerland staged a campaign to combat “air rage,” the uncivil and dangerous acts of passengers that are not only punishable by large fines but can also threaten the safety of everyone aboard the aircraft. Health care workers are also subject to high rates of workplace violence, with nurses the most frequent target of assaults by patients or a patient’s friends or family. Emergency rooms, psychiatric wards, acute care facilities, and crisis units are especially dangerous.

Third, disagreements and stress in the workplace may escalate into employee-on-employee violence. For example, a Xerox Corporation warehouse employee opened fire during a team meeting at a facility in Honolulu, killing seven coworkers. The employee was eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole for the shooting, which was described as the worst tragedy in the company’s history. The Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division later cited Xerox for failing to enforce workplace violence policies that might have prevented the deaths. In many of these cases, the perpetrator has been recently reprimanded, dismissed, or given other negative feedback that prompted the violent attack.

Finally, some violence in the workplace is the result of domestic disturbances or stalking behaviors. In these situations, an employee is confronted at work by someone whom he or she knows, such as an abusive spouse or domestic partner. This partner may be highly jealous, fearful, emotionally unstable, fueled by drugs or alcohol, or unable to accept a divorce or the end of a relationship.

Although the U.S. federal government has not issued formal regulations on workplace violence, there are several general statutes and OSHA directives to provide guidance. All employers are subject to the General Duty Clause that requires employers to provide a place of employment free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. To violate this clause, four elements must be present: (1) The employer failed to keep his workplace free of a “hazard,” (2) the hazard was “recognized” either by the cited employer individually or by the employer’s industry generally, (3) the recognized hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm, and (4) there was a feasible means available that would have eliminated or materially reduced the hazard. OSHA officials have also noted that some workplace violence is the result of random and haphazard events that could not have been foreseen or predicted by management.

In addition to this general duty, OSHA has rules that employers must follow in reporting workplace injuries and illnesses, which could include episodes or the results of violence. OSHA has also issued best practices and educational information for industries where trends and operating conditions seem to increase the risk of violence. For example, best practices for night retail establishments and for social service and health care employers are available. The U.S. Department of Justice has also convened conferences and issued reports for the purpose of curbing workplace violence.

Violence in the workplace became a more prominent issue with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Until these events, workplace violence was primarily considered in the context of disgruntled employees, dissatisfied customers, and domestic disturbances that moved into the workplace. Today, workplace violence is understood and managed from both an internal and external perspective. Although workplace crimes are often a reflection of general problems in society, employers have a responsibility to be proactive. Specifically, an organization should assess its unique risks, develop a workplace violence policy, implement a prevention program, provide security and monitoring devices, use training to reinforce workplace standards, seek outside assistance from law enforcement, social service agencies, and other groups when necessary, and install safeguards to protect employees and stakeholders from such acts. Companies should also purchase insurance policies to cover the costs of workplace violence, including business interruption, psychological counseling, informant rewards, and medical claims related to injuries.

    See also
  • Employee Monitoring and Surveillance; Employee Protection and Workplace Safety Legislation; Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Further Readings
  • Blythe, B. T.; Stivarius, T. B. Defusing threats of workplace violence. Employment Relations Today, 30, (2004). 63-70.
  • Kelloway, E. K.; Barling, J.; Hurrell, J. J. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of workplace violence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • U.S. Department of Justice. (2004). Workplace violence: Issues in response. Retrieved from
  • Debbie M. Thorne
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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