Guide to Preventing Workplace Violence: Planning and Strategic Issues

As with most other risks, prevention of workplace violence begins with planning. Also, as with other risks, it is easier to persuade managers to focus on the problem after a violent act has taken place than it is to get them to act before anything has happened. If the decision to plan in advance is more difficult to make, however, it is also more logical.

Any organization, large or small, will be far better able to spot potential dangers and defuse them before violence develops and will be able to manage a crisis better if one does occur, if its executives have considered the issue beforehand and have prepared policies, practices and structures to deal with it.

Planning Principles & Components

In forming an effective workplace violence strategy, important principles include:

  • There must be support from the top. If a company’s senior executives are not truly committed to a preventive program, it is unlikely to be effectively implemented.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Effective plans may share a number of features, but a good plan must be tailored to the needs, resources, and circumstances of a particular employer and a particular work force.
  • A plan should be proactive, not reactive.
  • A plan should take into account the workplace culture: work atmosphere, relationships, traditional management styles, etc. If there are elements in that culture that appear to foster a toxic climate—tolerance of bullying or intimidation; lack of trust among workers, between workers and management; high levels of stress, frustration, and anger; poor communication; inconsistent discipline; and erratic enforcement of company policies—these should be called to the attention of top executives for remedial action.
  • Planning for and responding to workplace violence calls for expertise from a number of perspectives. A workplace violence prevention plan will be most effective if it is based on a multidisciplinary team approach.
  • Managers should take an active role in communicating the workplace violence policy to employees. They must be alert to warning signs, the violence prevention plan and response, and must seek advice and assistance when there are indications of a problem.
  • Practice your plan! No matter how thorough or well-conceived, preparation won’t do any good if an emergency happens and no one remembers or carries out what was planned. Training exercises must include senior executives who will be making decisions in a real incident. Exercises must be followed by careful, clear-eyed evaluation and changes to fix whatever weaknesses have been revealed.
  • Reevaluate, rethink, and revise. Policies and practices should not be set in concrete. Personnel, work environments, business conditions, and society all change and evolve. A prevention program must change and evolve with them.

The components of a workplace violence prevention program can include:

  • A statement of the employer’s no threats and violence policy and complementary policies such as those regulating harassment and drug and alcohol use.
  • A physical security survey and assessment of premises.
  • Procedures for addressing threats and threatening behavior.
  • Designation and training of an incident response team.
  • Access to outside resources, such as threat assessment professionals.
  • Training of different management and employee groups.
  • Crisis response measures.
  • Consistent enforcement of behavioral standards, including effective disciplinary procedures.

Written Workplace Violence Policy Statement

Here an employer sets the standard for acceptable workplace behavior. The statement should affirm the company’s commitment to a safe workplace, employees’ obligation to behave appropriately on the job, and the employer’s commitment to take action on any employee’s complaint regarding harassing, threatening, and violent behavior. The statement should be in writing and distributed to employees at all levels.

In defining acts that will not be tolerated, the statement should make clear that not just physical violence, but threats, bullying, harassment, and weapons possession are against company policy and are prohibited.

Preventive Practices

Preventive measures can include pre-employment screening, identifying problem situations and risk factors, and security preparations:

  • Pre-employment Screening – Identifying and screening out potentially violent people before hiring is an obvious means of preventing workplace violence. Pre-employment screening practices must, however, be consistent with privacy protections and antidiscrimination laws.

A thorough background check can be expensive and time-consuming. The depth of pre-employment scrutiny will vary according to the level and sensitivity of the job being filled, the policies and resources of the prospective employer, and possibly differing legal requirements in different states. However, as an applicant is examined, the following can raise red flags:

  • A history of drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Past conflicts (especially if violence was involved) with coworkers.
  • Past convictions for violent crimes.

Other red flags can include a defensive, hostile attitude; a history of frequent job changes; and a tendency to blame others for problems.

Identifying Problem Situations and Risk Factors of Current Employees

Problem situations—circumstances that may heighten the risk of violence—can involve a particular event or employee, or the workplace as a whole.

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.

Risk factors at times associated with potential violence include personality conflicts (between coworkers or between worker and supervisor); a mishandled termination or other disciplinary action; bringing weapons onto a work site; drug or alcohol use on the job; or a grudge over a real or imagined grievance. Risks can also stem from an employee’s personal circumstances—breakup of a marriage or romantic relationship; other family conflicts; financial or legal problems; or emotional disturbance.

Other problematic behavior also can include, but is not limited to:

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

Though a suicide threat may not be heard as threatening to others, it is nonetheless a serious danger sign. Some extreme violent acts are in fact suicidal—wounding or killing someone else in the expectation of being killed, a phenomenon known in law enforcement as “suicide by cop.” In addition, many workplace shootings often end in suicide by the offender.

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 (for example, arbitrary or unexplained orders; over-monitoring; corrections or reprimands in front of other employees, inconsistent discipline);
  • Inadequate security or a poorly trained, poorly motivated security force;
  • A lack of employee counseling; and
  • A high injury rate or frequent grievances may be clues to problem situations in a workplace.

Security Survey and Measures

One important tool can be a questionnaire or survey for employees to get their ideas on the occurrence and potential for violent incidents and to identify or confirm the need for improved security measures. Surveys can be repeated at regular intervals, or when operations change or an incident of workplace violence has occurred, to help identify new or previously unnoticed risk factors. Responses can help identify jobs, locations, or work situations where the risk of violence appears highest.

As well as being trained in how to respond to violent incidents, security personnel should be trained in techniques for handling threats or other confrontations without letting them escalate into violence. Security supervisors should have an up-to-date contact list for all employees, in case there is a need to advise workers of an emergency or distribute other information. There should also be a list of outside emergency contacts: police, rescue, medical, social service, violence assessment and employee assistance professionals, etc. The security director should maintain regular liaison with local law enforcement agencies, familiarizing them with the company’s location and with evacuation and other emergency plans.

The floor plan and physical layout of a workplace should be reviewed and, if necessary, modified to improve employees’ safety. Aspects to consider include:

  • Visibility;
  • Alarm signals or emergency phones;
  • Control of access;
  • Arrangement of work space so employees cannot be trapped in a small enclosure; and
  • Adequate and clearly marked escape routes.

A plan for emergency evacuation should be designed and practiced. The evacuation plan should include not only procedures for getting workers out of a building, office, or plant, but some method for those evacuated to assemble or report in so that it can be determined who is safe and who may still be missing. Evacuation plans should include provisions for workers with disabilities—for example, a way to make sure warnings are received by employees who may be hearing-impaired and a system for safely evacuating anyone who uses a wheelchair.

Addressing Threats and Threatening Behavior

Many times, a violent act is preceded by a threat. The threat may have been explicit or veiled, spoken or unspoken, specific or vague, but it occurred. In other instances, behavior may be observed by others, which might suggest the potential for some type of violent act to occur. Yet in other cases, it may be the off-handed remark or comments made to people close to the individual, which may suggest problematic behavior.

Dealing with threats and/or threatening behavior—detecting them, evaluating them, and finding a way to address them—may be the single most important key to preventing violence.

Any workplace violence strategy must include measures to detect, assess, and manage threats and behavior. Saying that is easier than doing it. Normally there is no doubt that a homicide or assault has been committed; often it is harder to establish that a threat has been made. In addition, the effects of a threat are subjective and subtle; usually there is no physical evidence. Some threats are not criminal and, therefore, not subject to law enforcement intervention and prosecution.

Despite these difficulties, threat response is an essential component of any workplace violence plan. The first need, obviously, is to define the term.

What Constitutes a Threat?

Webster’s Dictionary defines a threat as “a statement or expression of intention to hurt, destroy, punish, etc., as in retaliation or intimidation.” That’s clear enough, as far as it goes, but it leaves open a question that legal authorities or employers have to answer in framing and carrying out a policy on threats: who determines when an intention to hurt has been expressed?

A purely subjective determination—whatever makes someone feel threatened is a threat— is an uncertain guide for behavior, since different people can respond differently to the same words or acts. Employees who are required to observe “no” threat rules have a right to a reasonably clear statement of what will be considered threatening behavior. That does not mean that subjective factors can or should be completely excluded from the definition, however. Employees can and should be held responsible for a reasonable regard for the feelings and concerns of coworkers and others in the workplace, and employers properly have an obligation to make sure employees do not feel frightened or intimidated.

For these reasons, a workplace violence prevention program addressing threats needs to include both a subjective and objective component. It must set reasonably explicit standards of behavior so employees know how they are expected to act or not act; it must also make clear to employees that no one has a right to make anyone else feel threatened.

The definition of a threat for workplace conduct standards need not be the same as the definition of a threat as a criminal offense.

A sample definition could be “an inappropriate behavior, verbal or nonverbal communication, or expression that would lead to the reasonable belief that an act has occurred or may occur which may lead to physical and/or psychological harm to the threatener, to others, or to property.” Alternative: “Any verbal or physical conduct that threatens property or personal safety or that reasonably could be interpreted as intent to cause harm.”

Identifying and Reporting Threats and Threatening Behavior

The best plans for threat assessment and response will be useless if employers or those assigned to respond to workplace violence don’t know that a threat has been made. Detecting threats depends in large measure on the workplace culture. If employees are too afraid or too alienated from management to report violent or threatening behavior by coworkers, no violence prevention program will be effective. To encourage reporting, employers can create a climate in which safety is accepted as a common goal for workers and management and all employees—including management, feel free to report disturbing incidents or possible danger signs.

Along with encouraging employees to report violence or threats, employers also have to inform them where to report and what to report. A designated office or person to whom complaints are directed, and perhaps a hotline number or suggestion box for employees who prefer to remain anonymous, can provide a concrete and clear venue for reporting.

To the extent that employees feel comfortable in reporting incidents to their immediate supervisors, the information may come through the normal management channels. However, having additional reporting channels can facilitate reporting where an employee finds it difficult to report through a supervisor. Whatever reporting system is adopted, publicizing it on bulletin boards, employee newsletters, and notices distributed with paychecks, or other means, will help ensure that all workers know how to report any behavior they consider troubling.

Just as important as knowing how to report incidents is knowing that reports will be heard and responded to. A feedback procedure through which employees will be notified —subject to confidentiality rules—of how their reports were investigated and what actions were taken will provide assurance and helpful “closure” to employees who make a report.

To further facilitate the identification of threats, employees, supervisors, and managers can receive training to help them detect out-of-bounds behavior or other warning signs. Training can also help educate workers and supervisors on how to respond to someone who seems troubled or potentially dangerous and how to report that behavior to managers. Training can also include a very clear statement to all employees on what to do if they see or become aware of a weapon (in almost all circumstances, leave the location and call for help). Any training program should be sensitive to cultural assumptions and stereotypes and emphasize focusing on an individual’s manner, conduct, and behavior rather than ethnic or other group identity or a “profile” of a dangerous person.

Threat Assessment

Threat assessment has two parts: an evaluation of the threat itself; that is, the assessment of the credibility and overall viability of an expression of an intent to do harm, and an evaluation of the threatener. Together, these evaluations can help lead to an informed judgment on whether someone who has made a threat is likely to carry it out—a determination that has been described as “differentiating when someone is making a threat versus posing a threat. ”The assessment can also help the employer decide what will be an appropriate intervention.


A good threat assessment will thoroughly analyze:

  • The exact nature and context of the threat and/or threatening behavior;
  • The identified target (general or specific);
  • The threatener’s apparent motivation;
  • The threatener’s ability to carry out the threat; and
  • The threatener’s background, including work history, criminal record, mental health history, military history, and past behavior on the job.

Clearly, there are characteristic signs to look for in evaluating a threat and a threatener, but an assessment must not turn into a mechanical process of checking off items on a list to see if someone fits a predetermined “profile.” Every case should be examined and evaluated on the basis of its particular nature and circumstances.

Every employer and organization will have to develop their own structure and procedures for threat assessment and response, depending in large part on the resources available. Large companies may find the necessary expertise in their own security, medical, human resources, legal, and employee assistance departments. Smaller organizations may have to seek outside help from law enforcement, mental health and social service agencies, and other professionals. Such contacts should be established beforehand and an up-to-date contact list maintained so company officials know whom to call when assistance is needed.

It should be noted that, typically, threat assessments will be conducted by a psychologist or psychiatrist specifically trained to evaluate a potential risk of violence. Both legal concerns and practical limitations often will render it inadvisable to seek threat assessment evaluation from an employee assistance program, security, or mental health professionals who lack training in this area.

Threat Management

The goal of threat assessment is to place a threat somewhere on a hierarchy of dangerousness and, on that basis, determine an appropriate intervention. If a threat is immediate, specific, and critical, the obvious response is to call the police right away.

A threat that is veiled or less specific and does not appear to presage immediate violence may call for less urgent measures: referral for psychological evaluation and counseling, for example. Many threats will turn out to be harmless blowing off steam and require nothing more than a formal admonition to the employee that his or her language or conduct was not appropriate and violated company policy.

A recurring problem in threat management is what to do when someone is evaluated as dangerous, but has not committed any serious crime. In those cases, managers will need legal and, often law enforcement advice. Workplace violence plans should advise managers where they can get guidance, on an emergency basis, if necessary.

Managers should understand that a threat assessment in some cases should be completed before disciplinary action is taken. Executives or senior supervisors may sometimes want to terminate an employee on-the-spot after a threat or other incident—in effect, kicking the problem out the door. Termination may indeed be appropriate, but doing so in the heat of the moment without any time for evaluation or preparation may be exactly the wrong thing to do, removing the potentially dangerous person from observation and possibly bringing on a violent act instead of preventing one.

Threat Assessment and Incident Response Teams

An employer’s workplace violence prevention program should designate the personnel who will be specifically responsible for overseeing the organization’s antiviolence policy, including threat assessment and crisis management. Teams should have the authority, training, and support needed to meet their responsibilities.

The threat assessment and incident response teams will be responsible for responding to ALL reports of violence, threats, harassment, or other events or conduct that may frighten any employee.

Often, team members will receive special training in risk evaluation, threat assessment, conflict resolution, and procedures to monitor, document, and develop a response to all cases brought to their attention. They also need to be aware of, and have contingency plans for, issues such as dealing with the news media in the event of a major incident and helping meet employees’ needs in the aftermath of a violent death or other traumatic workplace event.

It should be explained that, often, these teams will not conduct threat assessments themselves, but instead will seek the assistance of outside threat assessment professionals to perform the function with the team’s collaboration.

Teams often will benefit from consulting with law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, emergency response personnel, and other outside specialists or agencies that could become involved in a crisis. To be fully effective, these relationships should be established and maintained before an emergency occurs.

The composition of assessment and response teams will reflect a multidisciplinary approach. Teams often include representatives from security, human resources, medical, and employee assistance in organizations large enough to have those departments.

Other possible members are union representatives, where employees are covered by a union contract. While team members may belong to different departments, as a team, they should report to one senior manager, so that lines of communication and authority are clear and there will not be conflict or confusion in the midst of an emergency.

The team’s composition, tasks, and powers should be clearly defined. Employers may want to hire outside experts to train and advise the assessment and incident response teams. Those teams, in turn, can conduct violence prevention and emergency response training for employees, supervisors, and executives.

Teams should keep good written records of all incidents and interventions, monitor results, and evaluate the actions that were taken.


Training in workplace violence prevention will vary according to different employee groups. Training should be provided to new/current employees, supervisors, and managers, be conducted on a regular basis, and cover a variety of topics, including:

  • The workplace violence prevention policy, including reporting requirements;
  • Risk factors and that can cause or contribute to threats and violence;
  • Early recognition of warning signs of problematic behavior;
  • Where appropriate, ways of preventing or defusing volatile situations or aggressive behavior;
  • Information on cultural diversity to develop sensitivity to racial and ethnic issues and differences;
  • A standard response action plan for violent situations, including availability of assistance, response to alarm systems, and communication procedures;
  • The location and operation of safety devices such as alarm systems, along with the required maintenance schedules and procedures;
  • Ways to protect oneself and coworkers, including use of a “buddy system”;
  • Policies and procedures for reporting and record-keeping; and
  • Policies and procedures for obtaining medical care, counseling, workers’ compensation, or legal assistance after a violent episode or injury.


An evaluation program should involve the following:

  • Establishing a uniform reporting system for incidents of harassment, bullying, threats and other inappropriate behavior and regular review of reports;
  • Measuring the frequency and severity of workplace violence in order to determine if prevention programs are having an effect;
  • Analyzing trends and rates in violence-related injuries, lost work time, etc;
  • Surveying employees before and after making job or work site changes or installing security measures or new systems to determine their effectiveness; and
  • Keeping abreast of new strategies for dealing with workplace violence as they develop.

Any changes in the program should be discussed at regular meetings of the safety committee, union representatives, or other employee groups.

Disciplinary Philosophy and Procedures

Disciplining an employee for abusive, threatening, or violent behavior serves two purposes. For the abusive or violent employee, the disciplinary action should serve as an appropriate penalty for past conduct and a deterrent against future offenses. For the rest of the work force, it should serve to reaffirm the employer’s commitment to a workplace free from threats and violence and reinforce employees’ confidence that their safety is protected by strong, but fair measures.

To achieve those goals, penalties and the disciplinary process must be—and must be seen to be—proportionate, consistent, reasonable, and fair. Erratic or arbitrary discipline, favoritism, and a lack of respect for employees’ dignity and rights are likely to undermine, not support, an employer’s violence prevention efforts. Workers who perceive an employer’s practices as unfair or unreasonable will nurse grievances; and not report them with the expectation of a fair hearing and settlement. Grudges at unfair treatment will fester and may even erupt into further troublesome behavior.

Fairness in discipline begins with fairly and clearly spelling out what the rules are. Policies on workplace conduct should be written to clearly state the employer’s standards and expectations. Penalties should be proportionate to the offense.

If there is a complaint or incident, the incident response team will conduct or ensure a thorough investigation of the facts and based on the results, will consider and determine appropriate disciplinary measures.

The Zero Tolerance Question

When it began appearing in the language three decades ago, the phrase “zero tolerance” customarily referred to a standard, rather than a penalty. Zero tolerance on drugs meant that the standard of conduct would be no drug use. Zero tolerance on harmful substances in food or water supplies meant that no amount of a particular toxic chemical or infectious agent would be considered safe.

Over the last decade, zero tolerance has taken on a different meaning: the application of an automatic penalty for a designated offense. In that sense, the policy has at times been criticized for overriding judgment and common sense, as when school administrators acting under a zero tolerance drug or weapons policy expel a student for bringing a nail file to school or having a cold pill or a couple of aspirin tablets in a lunch box.

With regard to workplace violence, employers should make clear that zero tolerance in the original sense of the phrase applies—that is, no threatening or violent behavior is acceptable and no violent incident will be ignored. Company violence prevention policies should require action on all reports of violence, without exception. That does not mean, however, that a rigid, one-size-fits-all policy of automatic penalties is appropriate, effective or desirable. It may even be counterproductive, since employees may be more reluctant to report a fellow worker if he is subject to automatic termination regardless of the circumstances or seriousness of his offense.

Whether to use the phrase “zero tolerance” in its written workplace violence policy or find a different expression is a decision each employer will have to make. Whatever phrase is used, it should be made clear that the intent is to set a standard of conduct, not a system of penalties. Instead of warning of “automatic termination,” discipline policies should declare that violent workplace behavior will lead to penalties “up to and including termination. That leaves room for managers to consider circumstances and exercise judgment on each case. It also properly puts the responsibility on management to ensure that penalties are not imposed arbitrarily, but are consistent, proportionate, and fair.

Horst Insurance can assist you in developing a comprehensive Workplace Violence Prevention Program. Keys to consider in doing so are a strong commitment by upper management, identification of a response team, development of clear and concise procedures and methods of intervention, and monitoring and tracking of incidents and your results.

Reprinted by Zywave, Inc. from the Federal Bureau of Investigations.