Case study: violence and safety

Aug. 1, 2006
Afront office employee lost her temper in a violent manner and assaulted a co-worker.

A front office employee lost her temper in a violent manner and assaulted a co-worker. Other employees expressed concern about their safety and welfare. Some even quit, claiming inadequate safeguards and protections.


More and more employers are recognizing that the effect of violence in the workplace can be severe. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 10 to 15 homicides occur in the workplace each week, an additional one million people are attacked, and almost 80 percent of workplace killings occur when a stranger comes on the premises. The remaining 20 percent had some relationship with the killer that related to the workplace - former employee, customer, etc. One in five homicides of women at work are perpetrated by current or former husbands or boyfriends.

Violence, resulting from internal employee violence as well as external individuals entering the workplace, affects the workplace both directly and indirectly. Even the violent reaction to a negative performance review can lead to harassment or discrimination claims.

Many questions arise about how to handle these situations. The worst action an employer can take is to ignore obvious needed safeguards, signs of potentially violent employees, or signs of domestic abuse.

Depending upon the circumstance, several federal and state laws may apply. For example, OSHA requires employers to provide a safe workplace. If there is a known risk of workplace violence, employers can be cited if they do not address the risk. The Family and Medical Leave Act or state equivalent requirements are considerations, as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act and federal and state victim assistance laws.


Employers should make every effort to create and maintain a safe work environment. Here are some guidelines:

Implement procedures for dealing with workplace violence. The policy should be zero-tolerance, which may include termination for violent acts or threats made by your own staff.

Watch for warning signs and characteristics of a potentially violent person at work. Warning signs include, but are not limited to, verbal threats, blaming others, conflict with others, intimidation, and being upset over minor injustices. Some known characteristics are stress, temper/anger, being a loner, frustration, and history of aggression.

Get access to and use Employee Assistance Programs. When a violent situation occurs, refer both violent employees and victims to the EAP immediately.

Train employees to recognize characteristics and warning signs of a potentially violent employee. Train them to identify bullies or aggressors and potential victims of domestic violence. Be sure they understand they are to report any suspicions or concerns to you right away.

When appropriate, recommend that employees obtain legal assistance. Use restraining orders against aggressors who have entered your workplace and caused a problem.

Limit access to the building. Change locks on doors when an employee is discharged. Be sure the keys to your building include the words “Do Not Duplicate” to protect against duplication.

Encourage employees to obtain personal safety training during their nonwork hours. This will empower staff to feel more confident about protecting themselves, as well as provide a coping mechanism for the event that occurred.

A key component to securing your workplace is thoroughly screening applicants prior to hire. Inadequate screening techniques can lead to employer liability. Negligent hiring claims happen when the employer knew or should have known about an employee’s background, but failed to act and the employee injured someone.

If you do not currently check the references and backgrounds of potential hires, you should do so. Get an authorization form (call us for Form No. 105) that will help you obtain information about the applicant from previous employers. Consider implementing criminal background checks. Learning about a candidate’s felony and misdemeanor history helps prevent hiring people of risk.

Violence in the workplace can be scary and difficult. There are no sure-fire ways to eliminate it. Be proactive - establish an environment free from violence and take appropriate action when needed. Your staff needs to know you will do what you can to take care of them.

Bent Ericksen is the founder and Tim Twigg is the president of Bent Ericksen and Associates. For more than 25 years, the company has been a leading authority in human resources and personnel issues, helping dentists successfully deal with the ever-changing and complex labor laws. Both authors are members of the Academy of Dental Management Consultants. To receive a complimentary copy of the company’s quarterly newsletter or to learn more, contact them at (800) 679-2760 or at

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