Posted by Melissa Fleischer, Esq. on Oct 8th 2010

Workplace violence is the hidden time bomb for an employer.  You never really know when it will happen or it if will happen.  But one thing you know for sure.  If it does happen, the consequences will likely be deadly and the potential liability devastating. 

So what do you do?  Unfortunately, although workplace violence incidents seem to be occurring at an alarming rate, employers aren’t adequately prepared.  Unfortunately they either don’t understand how important it is or don’t know exactly what to do.  However, failure of employers to prepare for workplace violence can be the number one thing that can lead to an incident of violence in your workplace.  So what should employers do to prepare and protect their workplaces?  We will try to provide in the following paragraphs an overview of concrete steps employers can take to prevent workplace violence in their workplaces.

First and foremost, employers must have a workplace violence prevention policy and include that policy in their employee handbooks.  What should that policy include?  Most importantly, it should mandate that all employees have an obligation to report any workplace violence they witness or experience.  Then it should provide the contact information for the members of management that employees should contact to report instances of workplace violence.  In addition, it should provide that an employee who reports experiencing or observing an incident of workplace violence will be protected from any retaliation. 

But a policy alone, although an important first step, is not enough.  Employers are required to provide training on that policy and on methods to prevent violence in the workplace.  An important part of this training will be to advise managers and employees of the warning signs of workplace violence. 

In addition to having a policy and conducting training, employers can and should conduct a risk assessment to determine what risks they have in their workplace and ways to make their workplaces safer.  There can be simple ways to make the workplace safer such as better security, better lighting and installing locked doors with key card access.  In addition, there are the less obvious methods to make the workplace safer such as conducting background checks prior to hiring employees to ensure that you are not hiring anyone who has previously been fired for an incident of workplace violence.  You can also prevent incidents of workplace violence by engaging in progressive discipline.  This helps ensure that your employees who engage in violence are warned and penalized when they engage in such inappropriate behavior.  This shows that the employer has taken the necessary steps to admonish the employee for their actions rather than just sweeping it under the rug.  This can protect the employer from any claims of negligent retention. 

These are just some of the steps that employers should take to prevent incidents of violence in their workplaces and protect themselves from liability.  This is one time where the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” could not be more true.