Preventing workplace violence

It seems hardly a week goes by without some mention of a workplace incident resulting in injuries or even death.

According to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, there were 13 on-the-job homicides last year in the state. In fact, FBI statistics estimate that each year 1 million Americans are exposed to some form of workplace violence. Clearly, this is an issue that employers need to take seriously. 

Potentially violent situations can quickly arise from many sources. For example, an irate former boyfriend, a terminated employee or an employee under stress. Everyone brings their own unique issues, good and bad, with them to work every day. 

Whether workplace violence stems from a current or former employee, an unknown assailant or an employee's spouse, many incidents are foreseeable and/or preventable. Management often is ill-equipped, however, to recognize a developing situation and take appropriate action. With this in mind, the following steps summarize some of the ways employers can minimize the risk of workplace violence:

Use effective documents and conduct background checks

An effective employment application coupled with valid legal releases and disclaimers provide key information about an applicant. Employers should conduct background investigations to discover prior convictions, litigation history, motor vehicle records, employment references, education records and other relevant background information.   

Establish policies on workplace violence

Employers should establish a written zero-tolerance position on violence, threats or abusive language and make clear that any violation of these rules can be grounds for termination. A workplace violence policy should also include a procedure to confidentially report threats. 

Develop procedures for investigating threats

These procedures should include specific guidelines for conducting an investigation and interviewing witnesses, including the individual who allegedly made the threat. To the extent necessary, employers should retain security consultants, psychologists, attorneys or other professionals for advice on how to handle threats quickly, effectively and legally.  When a questionable situation presents itself, employers should get the proper advice and not ignore the warning signs.

Implement an EAP

Employee Assistance Programs can help employees who are struggling to manage stress.  Employers should identify a program to which they will refer employees and provide employees with the proper contact information.

Audit and improve security measures

Employers should establish a relationship with local law enforcement officials and a security consultant. Employers also should conduct an audit to determine areas of vulnerability and/or procedural weaknesses. Basic systems for protecting property, such as lighting, pass keys or cards, intercoms, employee identification, surveillance or alarm equipment and other systems or devices, should be considered.

By implementing comprehensive policies to protect workplace safety, employers will significantly reduce the risk that their office will be the site of the next tragedy.

Clark County resident Clarence Belnavis is a partner at the Northwest office of Fisher & Phillips LLP in Portland. Contact him at 503-205-8045 or