Part 1: HR Principles Guiding Workplace Violence Prevention

Workplace shootings covered in the news remind human resource professionals that monitoring potential violence and unsafe behavior in the workplace is crucial. Planning for any performance intervention or termination conference must include an evaluation of the risk for dangerous behavior. This article includes a comprehensive series of questions to support such an evaluation.


Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, states that employers have a duty to protect employees from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious harm to employees. Emotionally unsafe employees often react strongly to negative information or changes in the workplace. Physical harm to human resource staff, supervisors or company employees are an immediate consequence but there are long-term human effects such as: emotional toll – grieving employees, trauma for those who witness violence. Finally, the business will suffer as folks struggle to regain some form of normalcy.

24-hour factor

When employees are counseled about poor performance or turned down for a position, they may not act out at first. There may be an apparent honey-moon period in which the unsafe employee is unable to respond at first, followed by a strong reaction that builds as the reality of the situation becomes clear days later. I call this the “24 hour” factor.

Attorneys and security can help

Workplace violence prevention strategies can help to manage the risks associated with unsafe, unstable employees. The greatest point of risk is during or after an intervention aimed some negative situation: poor performance, being passed over, or probation and termination. Human Resource professionals often have feelings of apprehension during this preparation. They consult their attorney on the HR legalities and make plans that involve security personnel or the police. Attorney’s can comment on the legality of an employer’s action and the likelihood that an employee action might be successful in court. The police can contain certain situations once erupted, but neither may be able to assess the psychological potential for violence in advance. Sometimes visible security dampens the risk of violence.  In some cases, a visible police or security presence may actually incite a greater reaction. A good assessment of psychologically-based risk and sound intervention planning can make a significant difference in the outcome. Using information that management and HR already possess regarding the individual’s behavior in some or all of the following areas can yield a psychological profile that can inform successful planning.

 HIPAA vs Assessing the risk

When consulted on potentially violent employees, questions arise about private/medical matters that employers are charged with protecting – has the employee been diagnosed mental illness or medical condition that might alter mood? Does the employee take a medication that alters mood? Often this information is familiar to coworkers.  If the employer is unaware of these employee mental health issues, you move to observable behavior and other employee disclosures. Has the employee had violent outbursts, over-reacted to minor issues, broken tools, etc? Does the employee talk about violence in their home?

Workplace safety goals:

The following are the ultimate goals of violence prevention policies

  • Keeping company employees safe from aggression, threats of violence and assault;
  • Keeping company property safe from damage or theft and company operations safe from sabotage; and
  • Keeping an employee safe from self-harm at work or immediately after HR action
  • Keeping the community safe when you suspect imminent harm to people outside the company.

Guiding principles for violence prevention policies

It is important to know what ethical principles should guide decision-making in this kind of situation. Here are some examples:

  • Prevention of violent or unsafe incidents at work is a priority;
  • Company responses must be legal, ethical, professional and respectful;
  • Employees must be treated equally with respect to mental illness so attention must be focused on employee performance measures and observable behavior;
  • Responses must be consistent with company policies;
  • Company employees must be free from abuse, intimidation and physical harm at work;
  • Continuous, smooth and orderly business operations must be maintained;
  • Employee relations for the unit, peers and supervisor is important;
  • Planning and approach should consider professional risk assessment when there is a history of violence, threat of violence, discussion of firearms or presence of a chronic mental illness.

Companies can always add safety measures to written policies as long as they are focused on legitimate safety issues at hand and do not disproportionately affect a protected class. Some policies that might contain references to potentially violent conduct in the workplace:

  • Employee Termination
  • Medical Benefits
  • Conditions for Continued Employment
  • Progressive Discipline
  • Workplace Violence
  • Workplace Harassment
  • Performance Management and Feedback
  • Employee Requests for Disability Accommodations

Part 2: HR Steps to preventing violence – coming next.

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