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Management and Prevention of Workplace Violence

Bill HowattBill Howatt
Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity, Organizational Performance

This op-ed was originally published in Halifax's The Chronicle Herald on February 12, 2019.

If you’re unsure how your organization manages and prevents the risk for workplace violence, it is a good question to ask your human resources or occupational health and safety (OHS) leaders.

The size of your organization may matter, many small businesses with fewer than 20 employees may pay little to no attention to this kind of workplace hazard.

Even small organizations that have a health and safety designate or joint health and safety committee may not actively manage or educate employees, or have a plan for monitoring and evaluating the degree of risk for violence in the workplace.

I like reminding leaders that the wrong time to prepare for a crisis is when you’re in one, ignoring the risk for workplace violence does little to prevent it.

Some provinces’ OHS legislation requires employers to conduct workplace violence risk assessments, train employees and managers, and have a policy that addresses workplace violence.

The first step for any organization is to create a clear definition of workplace violence. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety defines workplace violence as any act in which a person is abused, threatened, intimidated or assaulted in his or her employment. These acts include threatening behaviour, verbal or written threats, harassment, verbal abuse and physical attacks.

The HR Daily Advisor points out four main sources where workplace violence may originate:

Personal relationship — The person doesn’t have a direct relationship with the organization but has a past or current relationship with an employee.

Criminal intent — The person has no relationship with the employer, their sole purpose is to shoplift, rob, trespass or engage in an act of violence or terrorism. This is the most lethal origin that causes the most workplace homicides.

Customer/client — The person has a relationship with the business and is violent with an employee. Some vocations — nurses, teachers, police, nursing home workers, firefighters, police, corrections officers and paramedics — have a higher degree of risk of interacting with upset and violent individuals.

Worker-on-worker — The person is a present or past employee who spontaneously or intentionally attacks or threatens another present or former employee.

Though some sectors and types of work may be at higher risk for exposure to violence, any workplace can experience violence. The more employers prepare to address workplace violence proactively, the less they will be at risk for violence against employees, contractors and customers.

One driver that motivates some employers to act may be legislation. Another is the employer being committed to reducing the risk for employees to be physically or psychologically injured in the workplace due to bullying, harassment or acts of violence.

What an employer can do to reduce the risk for violence in their workplace:

Define standards — Implement a clear set of policies and procedures to set expectations and articulate how the employer will manage: 1) discrimination, bullying, harassment and violence; 2) how substance abuse in the workplace will be managed; 3) emergency response and safety procedures to deal with a workplace crisis.

Train managers — Prepare managers to cope with and to intervene in different crisis situations. Including impaired employees who may be a danger, an employee blowing up in a fit of anger, an employee who reports they’re being psychologically bullied or an employee who reports they’re fearful of being attacked by a peer.

Conduct risk audits — Implement periodic risk audits that scan the environment for factors that increase risk for violence and obtain employee perceptions with respect to their degree of concern for bullying, harassment and violence.

Define and implement security protocols — Each employer will need to determine the level of effort it will take based on the amount of public access, if employees handle cash, whether having ID cards for visitors and employees is warranted, need for video surveillance, escorting employees to parking after hours, providing taxis for employees working after hours, need for lighting in a parking lot and for security on site.

Employee screening — Conduct employee background checks.

Respond to complaints — Take all complaints seriously. Put in place a mechanism that allows employees to report concerns in confidence, to encourage early reporting.

Prepare and practice for crisis — Ensure there are employees trained in first aid and CPR, and that all employees are trained in an emergency action plan for violence in the workplace. Have a building blueprint readily available in the event it needs to be quickly given to police, and conduct drills that ensure all employees are clear on what to do in the event of a violence crisis.

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