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The Only Guide to Workplace Violence You'll Ever Need

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Patient attacking nurse

Today I’m going to show everything you’ll ever need to know about workplace violence.

I remember when I first started to learn about workplace violence. I’d go from website to website, book to book, and forum to forum trying to understand All the aspects of workplace violence. It was overwhelming to say the least.

And in this no-nonsense guide I’ll cut out all the noise and show you everything you’ll ever need to know about preventing and responding to workplace violence.

What Exactly Is Workplace Violence?

The textbook definition will make your head spin. Here it is:

“A spectrum of behaviors, including overt acts of violence, threats, and other conduct that generates a reasonable concern for safety from violence, where a nexus exists between the behavior and the physical safety of employees from any internal or external relationship.”

-ASIS International

Now you can see why this topic is so confusing. The fact is that workplace violence falls within a broad spectrum of acts. It can be as small as harassment, all the way up to homicide. Categorizing certain behaviors can help clarify things. Let’s take a look at how The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health does this.

Type 1: Criminal Intent

· This is where there is no connection between the business, the employees, or customers.

· Examples are trespassing, robbery, and shoplifting

Type 2: Customer/Client

· This is when the incident occurs between an employee and customer

· The customer can also be indirect parties such as family members, and visitors

· Think of someone upset with a product or service

· This is the most common type to occur in healthcare settings

Type 3: Worker-on-Worker

· Also know as lateral or horizontal violence

· This includes bullying, harassment, and physical threats or attacks

· It frequently begins with verbal and emotional abuse designed to be offensive, vindictive or humiliating

· Most frequently this occurs between supervisors and subordinates

Type 4: Personal Relationship

· This occurs when the offender has a relationship with the employee

· Example: Domestic Violence or office romance

That seems a little easier to digest right? Good. Now, there is one more type that has emerged recently.

Type 5: Ideological Violence

· This is violence that is directed at an organization, its people, and/or property for ideological, religious, or political reasons

· Extremists and/or value-driven groups commit these attacks as a justification for their beliefs.

· Think terrorist groups, activists groups, etc.

Building a Foundation

Now that we have a basic understanding of workplace violence, it is time to build a foundation for a workplace violence program. It starts with how an organization identifies and defines workplace violence.

First, you’ll want to consider the scope the program. For example, retail locations should include prevention and response for robberies (Type 1) due to the nature of their operations. Conversely, a manufacturing facility may be less likely for that category as those locations are not accessible to the public or customers.

This is not to say that you should exclude any one type of workplace violence in your program. The important thing is that the program includes all conduct that could escalate to violence and that the organization will intervene. In other words, the program should have a clear definition of the organization’s definition of workplace violence, as well as outlining behaviors that generate concern for safety.

*Organizations should be careful not to overreach in its definition of workplace violence and limit it to behavior relevant to workplace safety where there is a nexus to the workplace.

Why is a Workplace Violence Program Important to an Organization?

Some may view these programs as a waste of time or not very relevant to their organization. No organization is immune to the wide range of threats and attacks relating to workplace violence.

Here are some benefits of a strong workplace violence program.

· Humanitarian Justifications- When it comes down to it, these programs help save lives and prevent injuries.

· Legal Justifications – An organization has the legal duty to protect their employees and others who interact in the workplace. This is known as ‘Duty of Care.’

· Operational Justifications- Workplace violence incidents affect not only the person who is attacked, but others as well. Research has found that these incidents can have a significant influence on productivity, morale, and public image. [, 2012; Hughes, 2001]

Who Should Be Involved In The Creation of A Workplace Violence Program

By now you are seeing that workplace violence is highly complex. It is a myth that workplace violence is only a SECURITY issue. It has a significant impact on several areas of an organization. In order to create an effective program it is critical to use a multidisciplinary approach to the creation of a program.

Here are the disciplines that should be included during the planning phase:

· Top Leadership

· Human Resources

· Security

· Legal Counsel

· Occupational Safety and Health Personnel

· Union Leaders (Yup! You need to get buy in from the membership)

· Employee Assistant Programs

· Crisis Management Personnel

· Risk Management Personnel

· Business Continuity Personnel

· Public Relations/Corporate Communications

*Studies have found that workplace violence programs that are openly endorsed and supported by leadership have a higher participation rate from employees. [Olson, 2006]

Planning A Workplace Violence Prevention Program

Here are the steps you will need to take to create a solid workplace violence program for your organization.

Step 1: Needs Assessment

The purpose of the Needs Assessment is to identify, evaluate, and prioritize the presence of risk of violence in your organization.

First, you will want to look at both internal and external sources that expose your organization to violence. Make sure you consider the relationship between these factors so that you can prioritize the types of workplace violence from most likely to least.

Examples of internal and external sources:

· Current and past employees

· Customers

· Vendors

· Contractors and others working on behalf of the organization

· Friends, family members, and intimate partners

· Visitors and guests

· Individuals in opposition to the success of the organization (internal and external)

Other considerations:

· Do employees work late nights or times when it is dark?

· Do employees work alone or remotely?

· Is the workplace located in a high crime area?

· Do employees handle cash or other valuable goods/assets?

· Is the location open to the public?

· Does the location sell alcohol or other intoxicants?

· Are there any current or past employees who are disgruntled and exhibited concerning behaviors?

· Do you provide services to individuals experiencing medical or psychological issues?

· Is the location a healthcare facility?

· Are there any current or ongoing issues that create conflict within the organization?

Existing Policy Review

Part of your assessment should cover a review of the organization’s existing prevention and intervention procedures.

Considerations during this review should include:

· Is there an existing policy in place?

· Does management support prevention efforts? (There should be top-down support)

· Is the policy enforced in a professional manner?

· Does the policy identify clear lines of appropriate behavior?

· Are employees encouraged to report concerning behaviors?

· Does the policy require periodic workplace violence training?

· Do employees know and understand the policy, to include how to report?

· Are complaints managed through a process to ensure nothing falls through the cracks?

· Does the policy address incidents that occur in remote/off-site locations?

· Are the employees trained to identify warning signs of violent behavior?

· Are employees trained in de-escalation?

· Is the policy reviewed periodically to determine if it is working?

Physical Security Review

Physical security plays a vital role in preventing workplace violence. Part of the assessment should include an evaluation of the existing physical security measures in place. Factors to consider are:

· Accessibility: Are entrances and exits clearly marked? Are they controlled to prevent unauthorized access?

· Are there security guards on premise?

· Do visitors sign in and out, and/or accompanied by employees?

· Is there sufficient lighting?

· Are evacuation route maps posted to help employees escape in case of an emergency?

· Does the location have safe shelters in the event evacuation is not possible?

· Is the parking lot secured and well lit?

· Are panic buttons easily accessible?

· Are there an objects blocking the safe and efficient evacuation from the location?

· Can doors and windows be secured?

· Is there a notification system in case of emergency?

Step 2: Elements of the Policy

One failure most organizations have is that they only discuss the workplace violence policy with new hires. It is vital that the policy be communicated with all employees at least annually.

The policy should be tailored to the size and needs of the organization. Here are some topics the policy should include:

· A clear definition of unacceptable behavior

· Rules concerning weapons on site?

· Mandate for the immediate reporting of concerning behavior or circumstances that could be indicators of workplace violence

· Provide for several methods for reporting

· Language ensuring that all reports will be handled immediately by the organization

· Outlines appropriate disciplinary action for violations of policy

· While a ‘zero tolerance’ policy is valuable, that term should be avoided in the policy as it has been shown to reduce the reporting of concerning behaviors

Additionally, the policy should be congruent with related polices such as:

· Anti-harassment & discrimination

· Substance Abuse

· Code of Conduct and Ethics

· Electronic/Computer Communication and Use

· Workspace Inspection

Threat Management Team

The program should include the creation and identification of a threat management team. This team will be tasked with periodically evaluating the program. Team members should be selected based on their experience, qualifications, and their ability to authority to make decisions on behalf of the organization.

Organizations are encouraged to seek outside help if there is a void in experience of qualifications within the team.

A protocol should be established as to the response and handling of complaints to include how the incident is investigated and resolved by the team. Examples of protocols include but are not limited to:

· The team member who will receive the incoming reports and who the report is

escalated to

· The team member who will conduct the initial information about the complaint/incident

· Circumstances that identify whether the incident will be addressed by the team or human resources (ie. The incident is determined to be non-workplace violence)

· Possible initial actions available for the team to take upon receiving the complaint

· Circumstances where investigations will be made

· Threshold where the complaint exceeds the team’s experience and outside help should be sought

· Threshold where law enforcement will be contacted

· Intervention and mitigation strategies to be used by the team

· Documentation process of the complaint or actions of the team

· Post incident review of the incident and handling by the team

· Review process for the protocols

Emergencies and Critical Incidents

The program should include procedures for events that require an immediate response. This would be in progress acts of violence such as robbery, battery, or active shooter.

The program needs to include initial and continuing training for all personnel to include senior management, supervisors, and employees.

Additionally, advanced training should be conducted for specific personnel such as the threat team, security, human resources, top management, supervisors, and legal.

Additional Considerations

Organizations in high-risk workplaces should include additional safeguards and procedures specific to their circumstances. Examples would be healthcare facilities or locations open all night.


They say the devils in the details. All incidents whether sustained or not should be documented with detail. These reports should be kept secured and protected with the highest degree of confidentiality. It should only be shared with those identified as necessary for management and follow up of the incident.

Additional Prevention Strategies

Here are some other areas where strategies should be established and reviewed:

· Employee screening

· Physical Security Measures

· Conflict Resolution Process

· Employee Assistance Program

Program Implementation

Here are the steps needed to ensure an efficient and successful implementation of the program.

Implementation Team

Small groups should be created to carry out the implementation of the program. This group should consist of key players in the organization such as human resources, security personnel, legal, and other stakeholders unique to the organization.

Designing and Planning the Program

The implementation group should create a realistic outline for the program. The outline should be based on the organization’s culture and needs identified during the initial assessment.

The group should consider:

· Any requirements or recommendations found in industry standards

· Legal and regulatory requirements

· Contractual requirements

· Any other relevant information from outside sources that could influence the organization

* Organizations are encouraged to seek the guidance of outside experts during the planning phase

Incident Management Protocols

Key elements should include:

· Designating the Threat Management Team along with their roles and responsibilities

· Developing protocols for response and management of incidents

· Conducting training

· Establishing a working relationship with first responders

Creation and Distribution of Workplace Violence Prevention Policy

Once the policy and implementation plan has been approved by senior management, it’s time to roll it out to the organization.

The policy should be disseminated in various forms.

· Mailings, emails, posters, and announcements

· Included in employee training (new and current)

· During company events and/or meetings

*It should also be provided to contract employees and independent contractors.

Monitoring and Review

Once implemented, the program needs to be monitored for effectiveness. Additionally, it should be reviewed on a periodic basis to ensure it meets the needs of the organization.

Questions for the evaluation include:

· Is the threat management team functioning properly and efficiently?

· Are there any failures, successes, or challenges that have occurred during the review period?

· How many incidents have occurred and what were their nature and outcomes?

· Are there any legal or regulatory issues that have arisen because of the policy and incidents?

· Is any additional training needed?

Incident Response and Management

Emergency Response Plan manual

The Significance of Warning Signs

Behavior nearly always precedes action. Therefore, it is critical to understand warning signs and threat indicators. These behaviors can be in the form of verbal cues, kinesics, and biometrics. It is important to have all employees trained in identifying these behaviors when they are observed. It is known as Situational Awareness. This will reduce the likelihood of violence.

While the saying ‘See something, say something’ is widely used, it’s more complicated than it appears. Researchers conducted two different studies in 2020 on the efficacy of the ‘See something, say something’ concept. Their findings are troubling.

The first study found that employees would only report pre-attack behaviors displayed in writing, such as social media posts, emails, or text messages (Craun et al., 2020).

The second study found that while employees are taught the see something, say something concept, the specific threat indicators to look for are not taught (Thomas, 2020).

For these reasons, it is imperative that ALL employees from the top down be trained in Situational Awareness. Some of the behaviors to look out for are:

· Employee’s history of violence or threats

· Aggressive outbursts or bullying

· Harassment in any form

· Inability to accept criticism

· Threatening fascination with weapons

· Chronic complaints

· Victim mentality

· Signs of emotional distress

Understand that these behaviors by themselves do not indicate an attack is imminent. It is the culmination of behaviors that increase the likelihood of violence. In either case, prompt intervention is needed to prevent the issue from growing.

Potential Violence From Abusive Relationships

Man grabbing woman's shoulders

Domestic violence is often concealed by the victims. This creates a challenge to preventing an overspill into the workplace. Here are some warning signs to look out for:

· Marks, bruising, black eyes, broken bones that are attempted to be concealed by the employee

· Reduction in work performance to include increase sick leave, tardiness, and decrease in productivity

· Behavior changes: isolation, crying, and short temper

· Increased communication from partner while at work

· Unannounced visits from partner at work


Timely reporting of concerning behaviors is directly linked to the progression of violence. The sooner behavior reported, the less likely the incident will escalate. Therefore, the program should make it easy to file a report, as well as encourage employees to file a report when they see disturbing behavior.

Here are some systems to accomplish this:

· Policy should not only encourage, but require the reporting of concerning behavior

· Numerous methods for filing a report should be made available

· Training on identifying threat indicators should be mandatory for all employees on an ongoing basis

Incident Management

First things first. In the event of an in-progress threat or attack, the priority is to contact law enforcement immediately. Time is a major factor in survival.

That being said, the incident management process is just that, a process. Keep in mind that not every circumstance will require each process to be activated. Employees and especially the threat management team should take action based on the urgency and level of threat for each incident. The process should not be so structured that it does not allow for deviation if the circumstance warrant it.

Information is key during a critical incident. Understand that information will often come in small, disjointed waves. This is why training is so important.

Assessing the Threat

Risk knob showing high risk

This is the fact-finding mission. The objective is to identify the validity of the threat and gather intelligence to support or refute the reported incident. Accomplishing this can be achieved by:

· Talking to the supervisor or manager of the person in question

· Determining if past behavior would indicate the likelihood of escalating behaviors of violence

· Interviewing HR and reviewing personnel files

· Auditing electronic communication

· Collecting and analyzing any video footage of the incident

· Examining open-source intelligence and social media

The objective here is to either find the report sustained or unsustained.

This is often easier said than done.

The Threat Management Team should focus on determining a motive for concerning behavior, identifying spoken or inferred threats of violence, and any other threat indicators.

One area that is often overlooked is the work environment for the person of concern. Is there anything that would indicate there are provocations by supervisors or workgroups that could have inflamed an underlying issue?

If yes to some or all of the above, then the risk should be sustained and further action taken.

On the other hand, there may be reasons for concerning behavior that would not sustain the report. For example, if the individual in question expresses sincere remorse, then it is likely the threat of violence is minimal. Additionally, if efforts to de-escalate the incident are successful, then again, the likelihood of violence is reduced.

In this case, a sound course of action would be to offer services to the individual and document the incident.

Analyzing the Threat Assessment Intelligence

The course of action by the organization should be guided by the intelligence gathered during the threat assessment of the incident.

If there are no indications for violence, the incident can be addressed through Human Resources. Possible actions include disciplinary, EAP, or any other employee relations protocols established by the organization.

If there is no immediate concern for violence, but there is evidence that future violence may occur, the organization should act according to procedures outlined in their policy handbook.

If there is an immediate concern of impeding violence, the organization must consider this to be an emergency and contact security personnel and law enforcement. Early notification of these groups can significantly reduce casualties.

Actionable Response From Threat Assessment Intelligence

No Indications of Violence:

· Continue to gather intelligence of the incident and fill in any gaps

· Consult a third-party expert to review the incident to identify additional efforts that can be used in the future to mitigate this type of incident

· Consult legal counsel to discuss any liability issues

· Assess the need for additional security measures

· Monitor the individual to ensure the issue has resolved itself and is not escalating

*It is important to understand that the way you treat an employee who is the subject of an incident can greatly influence its resolution. Treat employees with respect and avoid embarrassing them during the incident.

Indication of Impending Violence:

· Conduct multifaceted Intelligence gathering from open-source data such as social media, as well as company computers and electronic communications

· Consider immediate action such as discipline, suspension, or termination

· Consult with threat assessment expert to determine probability of risk of violence

· Consult with in house legal counsel

· If subject is a third-party employee or visitor, report the incident to their employer

· Notify law enforcement if deemed necessary

Domestic Violence

Black man pointing a black woman in argument

Incidents of domestic or intimate partner violence can bring additional challenges.

Suggested response:

Limit the abuser’s access to the workplace

· Notify internal security of the abuser’s identity

· Relocate the victim employee to a different area in the workplace

· Require the victim employee to notify management of criminal or civil proceedings involving the abuser such as the issuance of restraining orders or filings for divorce

· Refer the victim employee to outside services through EAP

· Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for additional resources

Suspected Mental Disorder

If the occasion arises that an employee exhibits odd or abnormal behavior, the employer must assume a mental disorder is the cause. In such a case, it is critical to consult in house legal counsel to establish the legal responsibilities they have in addressing the situation.

Possible Course of Action:

· Discuss the need for medical intervention with the employee to help them through their issues or place them on medical leave pending an evaluation

· Solicit assistance from family and friends of the employee

· Contact law enforcement if the behavior rises to the level that there is a concern for the safety of the employee or others

Creating Safe Separation of Employment

Under certain circumstances, termination of an employee is the only recourse to concerning behavior. This does not, however, eliminate the possibility of violence.

Courses of Action:

· Utilize a threat assessment professional to devise a safe separation process

· Be respectful to the employee and offer help if possible

· Implement short-term and long-term safety protocols once the separation has been finalized

· Do not conduct the separation in public

· Avoid embarrassing the employee, again, be respectful. (This goes a long way in avoiding future issues)

Assisting the Victim or Target of Concerning Behavior:

It is important that the person affected by the concerning behavior be provided some information and support once the threat has been removed.

· Provide an opportunity to answer any questions they may have

· Provide a security plan including appropriate action if they are contacted by the terminated employee

· Provide support services

· Offer to have them relocated within the organization if they feel it is necessary

· Provide follow up if the organization continues to have issues with the terminated employee

Final Thoughts on Incident Management

It is important to understand that an organization should avoid taking on a counseling role.

· Address the actions or threats according to threat assessments and policy.

· Follow through with detailed reporting of the incident and actions taken.

· Notify law enforcement if the incident rises to identifiable levels.

· Involve in house or retained legal counsel

Response To Critical Incidents In-Progress

Chances are your employees will have to address any issues of workplace violence before help arrives. Here are some general guidelines:

· Response procedures should always be to first evacuate from the danger

· Sound the alarm of an incident as soon as possible to get help on the way

· If escape routes are blocked by the attacker or would cause employees to travel through a danger zone, the procedure should be to barricade in a safe location

· Provide first aid only when it can be done safely away from the attacker

· Fighting the attacker is a last resort, however, may be necessary if all other options have failed and you are in immediate danger of attack

· Comply with all instructions by first responders

· Conduct a head count to see if anyone is missing

Understanding Law Enforcement Response

Depending on the nature and severity of the incident, law enforcement response will vary. Organizations should make every effort to meet with local law enforcement prior to an incident so that they know what to expect.


Provide law enforcement with as much information as possible (maps of buildings, location of incident, suspect if known, number of victims if known, types of weapons, access to CCTV, access to swipe cards/keys)

Expect that officers may be wearing different uniforms or may be in plain clothes

Be a resource for them


Take it personal if they are yelling orders, short with questions or answers, use profanity.

Be angry that they will most likely bypass injured to stop the violence first. They are trained to first stop the killing, then stop the dying.

Recovery Plan

The resiliency of an organization begins with a clear plan before an incident occurs. The recovery period begins as soon as the threat is over and the scene is secured.

Components of a Post-Incident Recovery Plan:


· Provide medical treatment to those injured

· Preserve evidence for the investigation

· Preserve assets


· Gather intelligence quickly and safely

· Secure area impacted by the incident

· Keep witnesses separated

· Understand that these incidents are fluid and may require further action or containment


· Provide broadcast to all managers on-site and off-site of the incident

· Provide employees accurate (as possible) information about the incident

· Coordinate with Law Enforcement on the notification of next of kin for injured or deceased employees

· Coordinate with Law Enforcement on the notification to the media


· Contact legal counsel

· Contact mental health counselors

· Contract with additional service providers such as security guard vendors to provide additional assistance

Final Thoughts

Workplace violence incidents can have a profound effect on an organization and the community they are located in. Being prepared will significantly influence the outcome of the incident. While there is never a 100% prevention solution, you can reduce the loss of life, injury to employees, impact on public reputation, and loss of assets/revenue by acting before an incident occurs.

For further information on how to prevent and respond to workplace violence, please contact us for a no obligation consultation. It is our mission to help organizations reduce the likelihood of these tragic incidents.


ANSI/ASIS WVPI AA-2020. Workplace Violence and Active Assailant-Prevention, Intervention, and Response Standard, ASIS International, 2020.

Craun, S. W., Gibson, K. A., Ford, A. G., Solik, K., & Silver, J. (2020). (In)action: Variation in bystander responses between persons of concern and active shooters. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 7(1-2), 113–121.

Dillon, B. L. (2012). Workplace violence: impact, causes, and prevention. Work (Reading, Mass.), 42(1), 15–20

Hughes, S. M. (2001). Violence in the workplace: Identifying costs and preventative solutions. Security Journal, 14(1), 67–74

Olson, B. J., Nelson, D. L., & Parayitam, S. (2006). Managing aggression in organizations: what leaders must know. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 27(5), 384–398.

Thomas, M. A. (2020). What the public needs to see and say: An easier guide to early detection of armed assailants. Cogent Social Sciences, 6(1), 1763539–.

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