Workplace Violence: Are You Prepared to Manage a Crisis Situation?

By Beatrice Calvin, CDF

Workplace violence can be defined as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide.

Nearly 2 million American workers are victims of workplace violence each year. Many incidents go unreported. Last year alone, there were a total of 4,383 fatalities in the workplace. Of these, 767 (18%) were the result of violence and 11% were actual homicides.

Workplace violence falls into four broad categories. They are 1) Criminal Intent; 2) Customer/Client/Patron; 3) Worker-on-Worker; and 4) Personal Relationship.

Criminal Intent

In this first type, the perpetrator does not have any legitimate business relationship with the establishment. The primary motive is usually theft and a deadly weapon is often involved, increasing the risk of fatal injury. Those who are most vulnerable to this type of violence include workers who exchange cash with customers as part of the job, work late night hours and those who work alone. Examples include cab drivers, people who work in banks and people who work in currency exchanges.


In this second type, the perpetrator has a legitimate relationship with the business and becomes violent while being served by the business. It is believed that a large proportion of customer/client incidents occur in the health care industry, in settings such as nursing homes or psychiatric facilities. The victims are often patient caregivers. In general, the violent acts occur as workers are performing their normal tasks. In some occupations, dealing with dangerous people is inherent in the job, as in the case of a police officer, correctional officer, security guard or mental health worker. For other occupations, violent reactions by a customer or client are unpredictable, triggered by an argument, anger at the quality of service or denial of service, delays or some other precipitating event. Flight attendants, library workers and teachers are some other examples of workers who may be exposed to this kind of workplace violence.


In this third type, the perpetrator is an employee or past employee of the business who attacks or threatens another employee(s) or past employee(s) in the workplace. Worker-on worker fatalities account for approximately 7% of all workplace violence homicides.

When the violence comes from an employee, there is a much greater chance that some warning sign will have reached the employer in the form of observable behavior. That knowledge, along with the appropriate prevention programs, can at the very least mitigate the potential for violence or prevent it altogether.

Personal Relationship

In this fourth type, the perpetrator usually does not have a relationship with the business but has a personal relationship with the intended victim. This category includes victims of domestic violence assaulted or threatened while at work.


Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. Clearly, violence in the workplace affects society as a whole. The economic cost, though difficult to measure with any precision, is certainly substantial. There are intangible costs too. Like all violent crime, workplace violence creates ripples that go beyond what is done to a particular victim. It damages trust, the community and the sense of security every worker has a right to feel while on the job. In that sense, everyone loses when a violent act takes place and everyone has a stake in efforts to stop violence from happening.

Each type of violence requires a different approach for prevention. However, there are some general things that most employers can do to help prevent workplace violence. Several of these are listed below.


Preventive strategies here include an emphasis on physical security measures, special employer policies and employee training. Employers should provide ample lighting at entrances and exits. Employers should also consider employing security staff to patrol the premises as well as serve as deterrents to would-be criminals. It is also a good idea to install cameras so that investigators will have visual material to identify perpetrators if necessary. When budgets have to be cut, employers often (unwisely) start by cutting security. It is not until some tragedy occurs that management realizes that security is not the service that should be cut.


It is a good idea to convene a multi-disciplinary team which includes local law enforcement, fire authorities, emergency medical services and emergency management. Employers should have a plan in place before it is needed. The plan should include a clear policy for reporting violence along with a chain of command for communicating critical information internally and externally. Include contact information for reporting and lines of authority for activating the plan. Include notification procedures for all staff.

  • Develop programs, policies and work practices aimed at maintaining a safe working environment.
  • Have a well-developed plan.
  • Prepare employees.
  • Practice emergency drills.


Train staff to anticipate, recognize and respond to conflict and potential violence in the workplace. If necessary, bring in trainers who can address these issues. You may be able to find assistance from local law enforcement.

High Risk Workplaces

Some workplaces may be at higher risk for certain types of violence. While no definitive studies currently exist regarding workplace environmental factors that can contribute to violence, it is generally understood that the following factors can contribute to negativity and stress in the workplace, which in turn may precipitate problematic behavior. Such factors include:

  • Understaffing that leads to job overload or compulsory overtime
  • Frustrations arising from poorly defined job tasks and responsibilities
  • Downsizing or reorganization
  • Labor disputes and poor labor-management relations
  • Poor management styles (arbitrary or unexplained orders; over-monitoring)
  • Reprimands (corrections or reprimands in front of other employees, inconsistent discipline)
  • Inadequate security or a poorly trained, poorly motivated security force
  • Lack of employee counseling
  • Frequent grievances may be clues to problem situations in a workplace

Risk Factors

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 behavior that, in combination, could point to possible violence. No one behavior in and of itself suggests a greater potential for violence, but all must be looked at in totality. Things to be alert to include:

  • Personality conflicts (Having a history of disagreements and problems with supervisors or coworkers can be an indicator of possible violence.)
  • Mishandled termination
  • Bringing weapons
  • Drug or alcohol use (Violence and drug use have a strong relationship.)
  • A grudge

Problematic Behavior

In addition to loss of job and/or job stress, risks can also stem from an employee’s personal circumstances—breakup of a marriage or romantic relationship, family conflicts, financial or legal problems or emotional disturbance —which can all cause an individual to become violent. Other problematic behavior also can include, but is not limited to:

  • Increasing belligerence
  • Specific threats
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism
  • Recent acquisition and/or fascination with weapons
  • Apparent obsession with supervisor/coworker
  • Preoccupation with violent themes
  • Interest in recently publicized violent events
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Extreme disorganization
  • Noticeable changes in behavior
  • Homicidal/suicidal comments or threats


Often, after a violent incident has occurred in the workplace, employees make comments like, “He was such a quiet person. We never expected him to react in such a manner.” However, by observing individuals (especially clients/patients/ patrons) you might notice clues to the possibility of eminent violence. You should pay attention to both physical and verbal ques.


  • Tense muscles
  • Bulging, darting eye movements
  • Staring or completely avoiding eye contact
  • Closed, defensive body posture
  • Twitching muscles, fingers & eyelids
  • Body tremors
  • Disheveled appearance


  • Heightened voice pitch and volume
  • Rapid speech
  • Confused speech content
  • Use of profanity
  • Verbal threats (The more specific the threat is to the person, method and time, the more seriously the threat should be taken.)

Violence In Process

If violence occurs, employees should be prepared to take action. Here are some steps that every employee should be familiar with.

  • Evacuate the area immediately.
  • Leave belongings behind.
  • Help others escape if possible.
  • Do not attempt to move any injured persons.
  • Prevent others from entering the area.
  • Summon law enforcement professionals.
  • If you are unable to evacuate, find a safe place to hide that is out of the violent person’s view.
  • Turn off sources of noise such as televisions, radios and cell phones.
  • Only as a last resort, if your life or someone else’s life is in imminent danger, attempt to disrupt or incapacitate the shooter. Security workers should be trained in self-defense and should know how to “take-down” a customer/patron if necessary.


On any given day, if you turn on the television, you are likely to hear a story about violence taking place on someone’s work site. Don’t be lulled into thinking that it can’t happen to you. Don’t wait until violence strikes your workplace before you do something. And don’t say, “It’s not my responsibility.” Violence prevention is everyone’s responsibility. We all have a part to play in keeping our workplaces safe.

The economy has affected almost every workplace. If you know that your library or organization has lain off a number of workers and/or has undergone a number changes causing stress for workers, you should pay attention. Your library or organization may be at a high risk for experiencing violence. Don’t ignore the warning signs. Have a plan in place and be sure your staff knows what to do in the event that violence occurs in your workplace.

If your workplace is affected by violence, employers should engage the services of mental health counselors who are trained to help people deal with these types of situations. It will be critical for staff to have a mechanism to talk about and manage their emotions which may result from a violent incident occurring in the workplace. It may be necessary for the employer to provide a safe place for group discussions. It is important for the well-being of all staff –whether they are victims, witnesses, or just bystanders—to have a collective strategy to process and cope with feelings. This will help the healing process for individuals and for the organization as a whole. This, too, should be part of your overall plan for being prepared for a crisis. Given the current state of times, employers and employees alike would benefit by considering the possibility that violence can occur in our workplaces and by being prepared to respond in an effective manner so that damage – both physical and mental – is minimized.


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