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Workplace violence: Prevention and response

Mar 08, 20175 mins
IT StrategyPhysical SecuritySecurity

Critical elements for a critical problem

workplace violence
Credit: Thinkstock

Every year nearly 2 million Americans are victims of workplace violence, which is defined as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), corporations spend in excess of $36 billion each year on remediating after effects of workplace violence, such as lost productivity and medical costs.  However, studies have shown that when an entity has provided training and implemented policies to prevent threats and violence, the incident rate has significantly decreased.

While no policy can avert all workplace violence events, the best risk management strategy combines a combination of sound protocols, access to expert professional resources, and quality insurance coverage.


The most effective prevention methods identify and address potential problems early. Though no policy or theoretical framework can predict human behavior, workplace violence generally breaks down into four broad categories, with differing motives and triggers:

  • Violence by Unknown Individual with Criminal Intent – the perpetrator does not have a relationship with the business, and the primary motive is usually theft.
  • Violence by Known Customer – the perpetrator has some preexisting relationship with the business but becomes violent while interacting with it.
  • Violence by Employee – the perpetrator is a current or former employee, and the motive is revenge for some perceived wrongdoing.
  • Violence by Associated Party – the perpetrator does not have his or her own relationship with the business but has a personal relationship with someone associated with it.

This knowledge, combined with the pillars of prevention below, can mitigate the potential for violence or prevent it altogether.

Hiring practices– Every organization should implement a hiring process that emphasizes pre-employment screening and background checks. These should always include:

  • Adequate drug/alcohol screening and criminal background checks.
  • Interview questions that can elicit signs of anti-social personality—for example, any instances when the candidate “creatively bent the rules to get the job done.”
  • Reference checks with former employers, including the question, “Is there any reason we should be concerned about this person from a workplace violence standpoint?”
  • Mandating of outside contractors to adequately screen employees before placing them in your workplace.

Understanding risk factors– 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 (arbitrary or unexplained orders; over-monitoring).
  • Reprimands (corrections delivered in front of other employees, inconsistent discipline).
  • Inadequate security or a poorly-trained, poorly-motivated security force.
  • Lack of employee counseling.
  • Frequent grievances, which may be clues to problem situations in a workplace.

No particular profile exists to indicate whether an employee might become violent, but employers and employees alike should remain alert to problematic behavior that could point to possible violence. Alerting behaviors can include:

  • Personality conflicts (possessing a history of disagreements and problems with supervisors or coworkers)
  • Mishandled termination
  • Incidence of bringing weapons to work
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Tendency to hold grudges
  • History of domestic violence

Training and policy– All employees should know how to recognize and report incidents of violent, intimidating, threatening, and disruptive behavior. All employees should have phone numbers for quick reference during a crisis or an emergency. In addition, workplace violence prevention training for employees should include the following topics:

  • Organization’s workplace violence policy
  • Encouragement to report incidents and the procedures for escalation
  • Tactics for preventing or defusing volatile situations or aggressive behavior
  • Diversity training to promote understanding and acceptance of co-workers and customers from different, races, sexes, religions, abilities, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations
  • Tactics to placate hostile personnel
  • Techniques and skills to resolve conflicts
  • Stress management, relaxation techniques, wellness training
  • Personal security measures
  • Programs operating within the organization that can assist employees in resolving conflicts


Crisis response plans are most effective when tailored to the needs and resources of a particular employer and workforce.   Instances of workplace violence, unlike any other hazards or disasters, are dynamic by nature, develop rapidly and feature a dangerous and unpredictable human characteristic.

A comprehensive crisis plan is vital to an entity’s resiliency during and after an incident. When developing a crisis response plan, an organization should consider the following:

  • Identify and define a crisis incident
    • Understand the warning signs and protocols to initiate the crisis plan
  • Prepare for the incident
    • Conduct threat analyses, vulnerability assessments and security audits on a regular and ongoing basis
    • Review, update and validate all emergency and crisis response plans across functional disciplines
    • Establish safe areas within the facility for people to assemble and seek refuge during a crisis
  • Develop crisis communication strategy
    • Factually assess situations to determine commensurate levels of communication
    • Communicate facts and updates about the situation quickly and accurately
    • Provide timely protective action guidance to employees, as appropriate
  • Training and Preparedness
    • Train employees in incident warning signs and appropriate actions to take in crisis situations
    • Understand and socialize immediate actions to take in a crisis, medical or relocation (evacuation) situation
    • Understand and socialize lockdown and shelter-in-place protocols


In approaching policy and procedure development and implementation around workplace violence prevention, training and response, enterprises should prioritize understanding of specific risk factors. By focusing on threats, which might exploit gaps in your current security and workplace violence programs, and assessing their relative impact on economic, operational or personnel losses, you will be able to identify and prioritize specific areas requiring mitigation and additional governance.


Jonathan Wackrow is a security professional with 18+ years of high level management and operational planning experience with exceptional knowledge in risk assessments and security operations. He has spent the majority of his career in the United States Secret Service, serving as criminal investigator in New York City and on the Presidential Protection Division. He is currently a Managing Director at Teneo Risk, a strategic threat advisory firm that offers CEOs a holistic approach to identify, manage and mitigate operational risks to their businesses.

Jonathan is formerly an Executive Director at RANE, an information and advisory services company that connects business leaders to critical risk insights and expertise to drive better risk management outcomes.

As President of i4 Strategies, Jonathan advised leading corporations on critical infrastructure protection, physical security, executive protection and crisis management procedures. His philosophy towards corporate security is simple; security should be a workforce multiplier to enhance other divisions, helping to achieve the fiscal goals of the company.

Jonathan is a CNN Law Enforcement Analyst and is a regular commentator on security and risk management on other major news outlets.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Jonathan Wackrow and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.