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Fear of Workplace Violence on the Rise

Fear of Workplace Violence on the Rise
Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

The Capitol Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. The Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. YouTube's headquarters in San Bruno, California. The fatal workplace shootings that took place in these businesses made Americans question whether they are safe at work.

According to a recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), approximately 1 out of 7 Americans said they do not feel safe at work. Nearly a quarter of employees and almost half of HR professionals polled said they had experienced an incident of workplace violence, with 14 percent of employees and 25 percent of HR professionals reporting incidents last year.

The survey polled 1,416 SHRM members on workplace violence from Feb. 18 to Feb. 20 this year. Figures were also sourced from a sample of 545 employees who answered questions on workplace violence in the monthly AmeriSpeak Omnibus survey using the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago from Feb. 28 to March 4.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that more than 2 million American workers are affected by workplace violence each year. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that more than 18,000 people suffered nonfatal injuries and more than 800 died as a result of workplace violence in 2017.

"Companies and HR should and must do more to make employees feel safe at work," said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of SHRM. "This data shows we have a lot of work to do in terms of security, prevention, training and response."

OSHA defines workplace violence as "any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.” It can range from verbal threats to physical altercations or even homicide between employees, clients, customers or visitors.

Even though survey respondents weren't asked why they thought workplace violence incidents increased in recent years, SHRM officials speculate that the rise could be attributed to "changing attitudes towards workplace behavior."

"With the rise of the #MeToo movement, as well as organizations' growing focus on inclusivity, it is likely that in the last seven years, HR professionals have come to view more types of behavior as problematic and indicative of future workplace violence," they said.

Planning for the unexpected can be difficult for any situation. Trying to prepare for the worst-case scenario where lives are on the line is even more so.

According to SHRM's data, nearly one-third of American employees were "currently unsure or don't know what to do if they witness or are involved in a workplace violence incident." Nearly 1 in 5 responding HR professionals were also unsure of what to do in such incidents.

Taylor said the data shows there's an education problem in the workplace when it comes to violent and dangerous situations.

"Education has to start from the top down, and often that starts with HR," he said. "There's naturally a lot of fear when people think of workplace violence. But preparing and providing employees with hands-on training helps empower them to react and take action in the event of a worst-case scenario." [Related: Incorporating Workplace Safety Into Your Culture]

Despite SHRM's figures suggesting violence in the workplace has become more frequent and some employees and HR professionals are unsure what to do in those situations, the consensus was that workers feel their office is safe. Approximately 71 percent of respondents reported as such, but "those who work at companies with programs to deal with workplace violence feel slightly more secure."

Not knowing that any incidents have occurred in the workplace also correlated with higher feelings of safety, as 86 percent of employees who were unaware of incidents either felt "very safe" or "safe." Of the employees who said they were aware of an incident within the past year, 64 percent said they still felt secure.

While most respondents said their company already provides workplace violence training to employees on how to act in a situation, more than one-third said they didn't take those measures. Though 90 percent of HR professionals said their companies had a process in place for identifying potential or current employees with a history of violence through background checks and other channels, more than half said it was unclear if they have workplace violence prevention measures in place.

According to data from this latest study, as well as a similar one from 2012, organizations are less likely to have prevention programs in place to stymie workplace violence or to train workers on how to respond. Approximately 30 percent of employees and 19 percent of HR professionals said they felt "ill equipped to deal with violence in the workplace."

When prevention measures are taken, officials said certain reactions have lost favor over time. For instance, zero-tolerance policies, where an employee would immediately be terminated following a workplace violence incident, have gone down in use from 47 percent in 2012 to 39 percent in 2019. In its place is a more nuanced approach, with 72 percent of current respondents saying their company's response would depend on specific circumstances – an 11-point drop from the 61 percent in 2012.

Regardless of which prevention method is employed, Taylor said the goal for employers was to make their workplace a "difficult target" for violence and to be able to react to incidents quickly.

"If you make the investment in security and preparation, your employees will feel safer and respect you for valuing their safety," he said.

Andrew Martins

Andrew Martins is an award-winning journalist with a BA in journalism from Ramapo College of New Jersey. Before joining Business.com and Business News Daily, he wrote for a regional publication and served as the managing editor for six weekly papers that spanned four counties. He is a New Jersey native and a first-generation Portuguese-American, and he has a penchant for the nerdy.