Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance

Risks of COVID-19 Related Violence at Work

Workplace violence is a fraught topic. Unfortunately, COVID-19 may be creating or exacerbating situations that may lead to violence in the workplace. Employers should be aware of this trend and determine what steps they can take to mitigate it.

Source: Antonio Rico / shutterstock

It’s important to note that workplace violence may be physical in the form of actual contact that causes injury or other harm. Or it could be verbal abuse or assaults, which carry their own type of harm. Workplace violence also includes threatening behavior that can lead to fear of harm. Here are some examples of workplace violence that are directly or indirectly related to COVID-19:

  • Arguments between coworkers or between coworkers and customers or vendors relating to COVID-19 safety policies, such as mask requirements or social distancing requirements;
  • Harassment because of views of the pandemic, either from coworkers, customers, or vendors;
  • Physical altercations that result from enforcing safety provisions like mandatory masks and social distancing policies;
  • Arguments stemming from differing political viewpoints;
  • Arguments stemming from customers vying for limited supplies of consumer goods;
  • Increased incidences of domestic violence (which may spill over into the workplace) due to being cooped up with a violent or an abusive partner;
  • Being under psychological stress, which can lead to lower thresholds for confrontation and increase the likelihood of problems;
  • Threatening or attempting to purposefully spread the virus through the intentional spread of bodily fluids like saliva in a public area, which may include things like intentionally coughing or sneezing on others or licking shared surfaces; and
  • General threats of violence from current or former employees who are frustrated from losing their job or income due to the virus.

Employers should be aware of these risks and take proactive measures to minimize their likelihood. Here are some actions employers can take to mitigate the risks:

  • Communicate clearly and frequently about policies and the rationale behind them so there is no confusion over requirements that could lead to arguments.
  • Be careful not to make frontline workers the only ones responsible for “policing” customer behaviors, as it can make threatening situations likely to occur.
  • Have a plan of action for when a client, a vendor, or an employee does not follow required pandemic safety protocols. Be fair and consistent in applying the rules, and assign someone the task of enforcement who is trained in doing so in a way that is less likely to cause confrontation.
  • Offer multiple options for customers who do not wish to comply with the rules. For example, provide the option for someone to do a customer’s shopping if the customer is unwilling to follow retail establishment guidelines, or offer delivery services.
  • Offer training to employees on how recognize potential problems and how to de-escalate threatening situations, as well as when to leave the situation or seek assistance or shelter.
  • Train management on conflict resolution techniques.
  • Provide training to employees on what to do if a threat occurs.
  • Check in with employees often to see how they’re doing and how they’re managing stress. Find out if incidents have occurred that you were previously unaware of.

What has your organization dealt with thus far? What actions are you implementing to minimize risks?

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.

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