Violence in the workplace

What is an employer to do?

Nancy Cooper
Bullivant Houser Bailey

The news reports have been awash with stories of late … angry boyfriends, girlfriends or spouses follow their partners, or ex-partners, to work, and violence ensues. Sometimes these aggressors take their anger out on themselves; sometimes it is taken out on the objects of their anger. Employers are increasingly finding themselves caught in the middle of an employee’s domestic situation, which now creates danger for everyone in the workplace.

But workplace violence isn’t made up of just domestic disputes. Employees have come into the workplace seeking revenge on past or current supervisors or coworkers they feel have wronged them in some way. Again, employers can be faced with potentially dangerous situations over which they do not have much control.

Violence in the workplace is a very real problem for employers. It isn’t limited to just the large dramatic displays. The little things can also trigger anger that may lead to violence. Things such as horseplay, teasing remarks that have "gone too far" and perceived slights have all created problems for employers. But the reality is that an employer can’t be in all places at all times. So what are employers supposed to do to protect themselves and their employees?

Unfortunately, there is no magic answer that will provide absolute protection from all episodes of violence. However, there are many things an employer can do to reduce the risk of violence. An employer should start with a policy that lets employees know that violence in the workplace, at any level, will not be tolerated. But the policy should go further. It should remind employees that they have a duty to warn their employer if something is happening in their life that may bring violence into the workplace.

This does not mean that the employer has to get involved in the employee’s personal life. However, if the employee is going through a particularly nasty divorce or breakup, and they let the employer know, the employer can help develop a safety plan. The employer can work out a system aimed to protect the employee and diffuse the situation. If an ex-spouse shows up at the workplace, a special code can be calmly broadcast over the intercom that alerts the employee to stay out of sight. It may also alert managers to call the police, depending on the circumstances.

A similar safety plan should be developed for unanticipated events. Employees should also be told that they have a duty to warn the employer if they are aware of a fellow employee making threats or acting in a threatening manner. There should be a code word in place that can be said to all the employees in the area or broadcast over the intercom. This word should trigger employees to follow the safety plan, whether that is to leave the building, report to a central area or call the police. Often this word is someone’s name, but a name that is not a name of anyone in that workplace. This allows the person witnessing a dangerous situation to say, for example, "Please ask Irma to report to the front desk." This tells employees that there is an emergency or intruder at the front desk and they should stay away. The appointed person should immediately call the police for assistance.

Employers should also be aware of the tenor of the workplace. If an employee seems upset or angry, the employer should take the time to find out what is going on. Employees who are already angry, and then feel ignored, are more likely to lash out and create problems. To minimize the chances of violence occurring in your workplace, stay aware, develop a safety plan and encourage your employees to communicate. Let the employees know that you are interested in their safety and enlist their help in preserving the safety of the workplace. Not all workplace violence can be prevented, but employers can take steps to reduce the risk of violence occurring.

Nancy M. Cooper is a shareholder with Bullivant Houser Bailey PC. She counsels and advises managers and supervisors on employment issues. She can be reached at 503-228-6351 or by visiting

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