Chapter 31:
Violence in the Workplace

Updated as of June 2006

Workplace violence is a fact of life for California employers. The termination of an irate employee or an escalating argument between employees are all grim reminders that violence in the workplace is a possibility employers must be prepared to confront.

Few employers have experienced the highly publicized incidents of workplace violence as has the United States Postal Service. The Postal Service has established the following six-step strategy which can assist California employers in their efforts to prevent workplace violence:

  1. Selection practices that emphasize the pre-screening process and background checks;
  2. The adoption of security measures, including awareness programs, training on the method of reporting incidents, the use of security guards and surveillance cameras, and the requirement that employees wear access badges;
  3. The adoption of a strong policy against violence, which prohibits the use or possession of weapons of any kind, promotes a "zero tolerance" policy towards threats, and establishes early-intervention protocol predicated on the belief that no incident of violence is minor;
  4. A strong commitment to improve the workplace environment, which includes training managers regarding such matters as conflict resolution and positive reinforcement;
  5. The enhancement of the employee assistance program (EAP), which may include a 24-hour hot line that could be used for employees to report threats or concerns about violence; and
  6. The establishment of separation policies that include evaluations of individuals who are terminated to determine if they pose risks of danger to the security of the workplace.

The Postal Service has developed a list of warning signs that may indicate a propensity for violent behavior. As it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict violence based on an individual trait, a combination of the following behaviors should serve to heighten an employer's awareness of the increased risk of violence. The Postal Service draft policy on "Crisis Intervention Team-Assessment Plan" includes:

  1. Verbal Threats Stated intention to hurt or kill someone
    1. Repeated statements / multiple reports / constantly swears at others
    2. "I understand why the guy did what he did at the Post Office."
    3. Evidence of prior assaults (e.g. spousal abuse or military misconduct)
  2. Intimidating Behavior Inappropriate/repeated boundary crossing including: excessive phone calls, messages, letters/memos, office appearance, following/stalking, gift giving
    1. Angry confrontation (easily provoked, impulsive, unpredictable)
    2. Restlessness, agitation
    3. Belligerence towards customer
  3. Bizarre Thoughts / Paranoid Behavior Developed fantasies with self-centered outcomes
    1. Irrational violent associations or thoughts
    2. Delusional commands or statements, e.g. referencing UFOs, the end of the world, being spied on by others, seeing elves
    3. Secretive behavior
    4. Poems or letters that are bizarre or make reference to violence
    5. Feelings of be singled out or fear that someone is out to get him or her
    6. Emotional mood swings
    7. Receiving unconventional religious message
  4. Obsessions With hurting a specific person or group
    1. With a romantic attachment to someone (generally not a sexual attachment)
    2. With a notoriously violent incident
    3. With weapons (ownership of a gun collection, fascination with weapons, subscriptions to gun magazines like Soldiers of Fortune, proficient in their use)
  5. Recent Marked Performance Decline Attendance problems or absences from work
    1. Decreased productivity and inconsistent work patterns
    2. Concentration problems
    3. Increased accident involvement
    4. Poor health and hygiene
    5. Continual excuses/blame or an unwillingness to accept responsibility for even small errors
  6. Serious Stress in the Employee's Personal Life Financial problems, bill collectors
    1. Crying, excessive personal phone calls
    2. Losses: job, marriage, a loved one
  7. Substance Abuse
    1. Most drugs interfere dramatically with reasoning ability, social inhibition, and the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Since alcohol and certain drugs agitate, create paranoia, and cause aggressive behavior, an individual who may have been marginal is often pushed over the edge.

Workplace violence has led to recent changes in legislation affecting human resource management. California Labor Code Section 3553, which addresses giving notice to an employee who is a victim of a crime at the workplace, was amended effective January 1, 2001, to state:

"Every employer subject to the compensation provisions of this code shall give any employee who is a victim of a crime that occurred at the employee's place of employment written notice that the employee is eligible for workers' compensation for injuries, including psychiatric injuries, that may have resulted from the place of employment crime. The employer shall provide this notice, either personally or by first-class mail, within one working day of the place of employment crime, or within one working day of the date the employers reasonably should have known the crime."

Background checks have also increased in use and importance in workplace violence and crime prevention. Employers that hire individuals with characteristics that could constitute a threat to others may expose the company to a “negligent hiring” claim. To arm itself from such a claim, an employer should consider conducting background checks of all applicants after an offer is extended.

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