HR Hero Line

Minimizing the risks of workplace violence

by Whitney Brown

On August 26, a TV reporter and cameraman were fatally shot by a former coworker while on location doing a live interview in Roanoke, Virginia. That same day, a sous chef at P.F. Chang’s in the Northshore Mall in Peabody, Massachusetts,  was stabbed to death by a coworker. Just this week, a college instructor killed another professor on the campus of Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi. Those are just a few recent incidents illustrating that there is no safe industry or worker classification and no foolproof policy or practice when it comes to preventing workplace violence

What’s an employer to do?
A violent worker may be a white-collar computer geek, a blue-collar delivery driver, or a “no-collar” food processor. Often employees involved in attacks have no criminal conviction for a violent offense. Many will pass a background check. So what can employers do to minimize the risks of workplace violence?

First, you must understand the relationships and situations from which violent incidents arise. The primary relationship leading to violence in the workplace is the relationship between an employee and a domestic partner who’s not employed at the same company. In many workplaces, the threat of domestic violence can be curbed by implementing and enforcing security measures such as private employee parking, restricted visitor access, sign-in sheets, and ID badges. In every workplace, employers can provide leave for an abused employee to seek restraining orders, undergo counseling, or attend criminal proceedings against an abusive partner. In some states, all of these measures are required by law.

A more situational risk relationship arises during encounters between third parties and employees. The risk in this type of relationship is most pronounced in banking, retail, or anywhere with an accessible source of cash or items of value (e.g., prescription drugs). Security and preventive measures such as panic buttons and video monitoring (or the appearance of cameras) can deter this type of violence.

The coworker relationship is the most shocking—and rare—relationship that can lead to a violent workplace incident. Solid harassment policies that go well beyond the legal definition of harassment to cover bullying and threats will encourage employees to report any suspicions. Training supervisors not to discount employees’ concerns about coworkers or warning signs of potential violence is also an important step.

Policies deterring employees from engaging in workplace romances or bringing legal or illegal valuables into the workplace will help you prevent disputes over love or money. Offering an employee assistance program (EAP) or counseling to a struggling employee may prevent a conflict from escalating, but you should always be careful when making such offers to avoid Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) issues.

Need to learn more?
Employers can no longer subscribe to the notion that “it will never happen here,” given the frequency and severity of workplace attacks. Fortunately, you can train employees to respond to an active assailant attack in ways that can minimize their risk of injury and death. Because we want you and your employees to be as safe as possible in the workplace, we are offering discounted access to our 30-minute webinar “Active Assailants in the Workplace: 5 ways to Increase Employees’ Chance of Survival.”

During this 30-minute rebroadcast on September 22, our presenter Bill Gage—a former U.S. Secret Service agent with extensive experience in active shooter threat mitigation—will share his insights on preparing for an active shooter or other workplace violence-related event. For more information, go to

Bottom line

You have the right to be wrong when you’re being proactive in addressing concerns about workplace violence. As the police would say, “It is better to be tried by 12 than carried by six.”

Whitney Brown is an attorney with Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, P.C. in Birmingham, Alabama. She may be contacted at