Risk & Compliance


Workplace violence isn't a remote risk. And the hurt can cut deeply into the bottom line.
John P. Mello Jr.January 1, 1998

Mention the risk of violence in the workplace, and most people probably imagine mayhem inside post offices, convenience stores, and fast-food restaurants. Their first thought certainly isn’t of a corporate setting.

But if you assume you’re automatically safe within an office, consider this: 14 workers in a San Francisco law office were shot in 1991, 8 fatally, by a disgruntled client. In fact, one of every six violent crimes occurs in the workplace. According to a study in 1996 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 30 homicides a week take place there, 75 percent of them robbery-related. Another one million workers are assaulted in the workplace each year.

To be sure, workers are most at risk if they have routine contact with the public, exchange money, or work alone or in small numbers, late at night or in the early morning, or in high-crime areas. And the vast majority of murders or assaults in the workplace are committed by strangers, according to the NIOSH study.

But workplace violence isn’t restricted to fast-food restaurants and convenience stores in dangerous areas. According to a 1994 survey by New York-based management trainers American Management Association, more than one-third of the private-sector respondents, including service firms and manufacturers, experienced on-the-job violence in their offices or factories–many of them more than once. And sometimes, workers themselves are the perpetrators, as well as the victims.

Yet the typical company deludes itself about the issue. “There are some common misconceptions that executives have about workplace violence,” observes Dennis L. Johnson, a clinical psychologist and president of Behavior Analysts & Consultants Inc., in Stuart, Florida. “One is the notion that it can’t happen here.”

That notion can be costly. In his book Violence at Work: How to Safeguard Your Firm, published last fall by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, Mark F. Murray estimates that the annual cost to employers of violence at work exceeds $4 billion. While that includes the cost of enhanced security; of declines in productivity as a result of a traumatized, demoralized staff; and of higher turnover, it doesn’t count medical and legal expenses, which average $250,000 per incident. And those legal costs don’t include contingency fees paid out of judgments or settlements arising from suits against employers for failure to protect employees. Judgments in such cases average around $1.2 million, settlements, $600,000.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says that failure to prevent workplace violence can violate federal law if an employer knows or could reasonably anticipate that a worker is subject to violence and it does nothing to prevent it. In one California case, an employer was found liable for a female worker’s death because it failed to tell her that a co-worker with whom she became romantically involved was an ex-convict with a record of sexual assault and violent crimes.

The courts have also found that an employer can be liable for workplace violence resulting from negligent hiring. They’ve ruled that an employer must make a reasonable investigation into a job applicant’s character to ensure that the applicant will not, by reason of his or her temperament, habits, or nature, create a risk of injuring his or her fellow workers. The courts have also found employers liable when they fail to act to keep a worker from becoming violent.

“If you fail to deter preventable violence, liability is nearly certain,” Murray wrote in his book. “No employer would want to face a prosecutor who questions why, despite all the attention workplace violence has received over the last few years, the firm had no plan to prevent or reduce the likelihood of an incident.”

Many companies nevertheless run that risk. Mark Braverman, a principal with Crisis Management Group Inc., a Newton, Massachusetts, firm that has developed violence-prevention programs for Fortune 500 companies, such as Digital Corp., and such government agencies as the U.S. Postal Service, the Department of Labor, and the U.S. Army recalls a case at a multinational corporation that he worked on in which a male worker continually intimidated, and once even physically attacked, his female supervisor. Management repeatedly ignored her complaints and other evidence of trouble. As her concerns about her safety grew, her health deteriorated. Finally, too ill to work, she resigned and hired a lawyer. At that point, Braverman argues, the company was in a lose-lose situation.


“A lot of these companies prevail in court,” Braverman says. “But the companies pay big time in terms of morale. An atmosphere is created in which no one trusts the company. That’s horribly costly, but no one can calculate the cost.”

Insurance is of limited use here. Of the few companies that offer coverage for violence in the workplace, all exclude liability. A policy sold by Cigna Corp., for example, covers such costs as loss of business income, public relations expenses, and employee salaries and death benefits, but specifically excludes “legal costs, judgments, and settlements incurred as the result of any claim, suit, or judicial action.”

And while premiums for such coverage vary according to the size of a company, its loss history, and its line of work, they will be a lot higher without a workplace violence program in place, says Robert L. Carter Jr., an attorney with McKenna & Cuneo LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Few companies have such a program. “I would say that 95 percent of all companies don’t know how to respond to workplace violence,” says Jim Hardeman, manager of the Employee Assistance Program at imaging-systems maker Polaroid Corp., in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Polaroid, however, is one of a growing number that do. What these companies have learned is that successful prevention requires a well-designed and sustained effort based on careful analysis of how they’re most vulnerable (see box, “Nine Steps to Prevent Violence,” facing page).

For starters, companies must realize that much violence is a spillover from domestic abuse. This has a clear impact on company performance. According to a study underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation last May, 64 percent of battered women arrive at work an hour late five times a month, and 24 to 34 percent of them lose their jobs. While there may be little, if anything, a company can do to prevent such abuse at home, enhanced security offers them some protection. According to the study, 75 percent of domestic-violence victims are harassed at work by their abuser.

The most obvious way to protect such workers is to bolster security. Getting by the receptionist, for example, is often too easy, says Mark Murray. Access for former employees, vendors, messengers, and friends visiting employees should always be restricted, Murray says. “No visitor should ever be allowed to walk unescorted through your offices without proper clearance,” he adds.

Granted, better security won’t keep employees from being abused at home. To try to stem that abuse, Polaroid now “partners” with Transition House, a battered-women’s shelter located near the company’s headquarters. Polaroid helps provide resources at the shelter and free job training for 50 women each year. In return, Transition House provides speakers who address Polaroid employees on violence-awareness issues.

Of course, neither enhanced security nor community outreach may prevent violence by employees within the workplace. In fact, experts contend that managers too often tolerate aberrant behavior by employees. “Supervisors tend to treat employees at risk for violent acting out as being eccentric but harmless,” Dennis Johnson notes.

That was the tendency at Polaroid, as the company belatedly discovered. In 1994, an employee held five workers hostage at the company’s Norwood, Massachusetts, facility and threatened to kill them. “He didn’t want a female boss,” Hardeman explains. “He thought he could get her to transfer him to another department where there was a male boss.”


Sadly, he had reason to believe he would succeed. “The hostage-taker had used fear and intimidation with his female supervisors over his 17-year career,” says Hardeman, a forensic therapist and former manager at two correctional facilities in Massachusetts. “Amazingly, they had promoted him to get rid of him instead of using established grievance procedures. This individual continued his abusive behavior because management rewarded him for it.”

Eventually, the worker was talked into surrendering to police without anyone getting hurt. “After that, I felt we needed very formal guidelines and protocols to address the problem of violence in our company,” says Hardeman, who acted as a hostage negotiator during the incident. The result has been a model program praised by many experts in the field. Under the program, Polaroid requires its human-resources staff, as well as its managers and supervisors, to receive two hours of training on the company’s guidelines for managing violence and threats of violence in the workplace. In addition, they receive another four-and-a-half hours of training in recognizing violence, responding to it, and using the resources of the company and community to deal with it. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Postal Service, whose notorious history of on-the-job violence has led to the expression “going postal,” has done much to improve the safety of its workplace. Postmasters, managers, supervisors, and local union leaders now undergo eight hours of violence-awareness training, with 61,000 trained in fiscal 1996 alone. The postal service is also in the process of creating “threat assessment teams” in each of the organization’s 85 districts. These teams are tutored in assessing and responding to violent or potentially violent situations. And the postal service isn’t stopping there. “If you’re going to have an effective workplace violence prevention program, you can’t rest,” says Bradley A. Johnson, an employee relations specialist and the Violence Prevention Program coordinator for the postal service. Where should a company begin? Crisis Management Group’s Braverman recommends a workplace audit to identify where the greatest risks of violence lie. Among the basic questions that this audit should address are: Do your employees handle money? Do they work late at night? Do they have contact with the public? Are you downsizing? Affirmative answers to any of these questions increase the risk of violence in your workplace, the consultant notes. After completing an audit, a company should assemble a crisis-intervention team that consists of top management, as well as such departments as human resources, legal, health, and safety, along with any labor unions that represent workers. The team should be prepared to handle any situation that the audit found likely to arise. Naturally, one big source of potential trouble for any company is terminations, but it, too, can be headed off. “People won’t come back and hurt you because they were fired,” Braverman contends. “They’ll come back and hurt you because of the way they were made to feel in the process: ‘I was humiliated. I was treated like an animal. I was discarded like a broken machine,’ that sort of thing.” Again, enhanced security could help here. But former employees are more likely to circumvent security than strangers who are unfamiliar with the company and its security measures. And, of course, termination is only one potential cause of problems. As Polaroid’s case shows, violence can be the result of a long series of routine but bad decisions. “Most serious situations occur because they’ve been allowed to go unreported for long periods of time,” Braverman explains. “You have line supervisors whose training tells them–either officially or unofficially–not to bother the boss with anything that doesn’t have to do with productivity. As a result, serious situations, which can have enormous consequences on safety and health in the workplace, don’t get treated until the crisis blows up in the face of the organization’s executives.” But an effective workplace violence program will defuse a situation before it explodes, Polaroid’s Hardeman says. “Violence doesn’t just happen,” he contends. “It develops, like a storm. Our first line of defense is our managers and supervisors. They must be trained well.” The key is to pull the lid off the pressure cooker of silence that often develops. “It was silence that almost got people killed here,” he says. “People saw things and heard things, but they didn’t report them, because they didn’t know what to report or who to report to.” INVISIBLE LOSSES The cost of setting up an effective workplace violence program can range from $5,000 to $45,000, depending on a number of factors, including the size of the company and the extent of the policies, training, and infrastructure to support it, according to Braverman. But Hardeman contends the expenditures on violence prevention pale compared with the “invisible” dollars lost by a company that has an unsafe workplace. “What companies don’t realize is that a good work environment costs less to run than a negative one,” Dennis Johnson adds. But that requires a lot more than lip service. “I don’t believe a video or a workbook can do much for a company,” Braverman points out. “They don’t change the way people deal with crises, and they don’t change corporate culture. Unless there’s a real commitment at the top to a program, nothing will change, no matter how many videotapes you show your employees or how many violence-prevention trainings you run them through.” John P. Mello Jr. is a freelance writer based in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. NINE STEPS TO PREVENT VIOLENCE ———————————————————————— 1. Conduct an audit to determine the greatest risks of violence in your workplace. 2. Form a management team to address those risks. This team should include top management and have its strong support, or your program will be doomed from the start. The team should represent your core of internal experts on violence and should be able to assess your company’s readiness to deal with it. 3. Thoroughly and carefully screen job applicants. Check references and backgrounds. 4. Train and educate managers and supervisors to recognize the signs of potential violence and on what to do when they encounter a violent incident. 5. Develop a network of external resources. These may include psychological consultants, occupational medical personnel, security consultants, employee assistance program personnel, local law enforcement officers, or legal counsel. 6. Don’t hesitate to use this network when faced with a threat of violence. Obtain restraining orders against harassers and psychological assessments from outside experts. 7. Consider additional security measures. Assess the company’s existing physical surroundings and make any modifications necessary. 8. Be attentive to morale and employee-relations issues. Identify issues that are causing workplace stress and resolve them. Provide policies that ensure the complaints of workers are heard and acted on. Handle terminations in a way that preserves a worker’s dignity. 9. Take action following a violent incident. Discipline offenders. Counsel victims and other employees. Impose additional security measures to prevent a recurrence of similar incidents. Sources: Crisis Management Group Inc., Newton, Massachusetts; Schachter, Kristoff, Orenstein & Berkowitz LLP, San Francisco.