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Industrial & Organisational : Introduction : Personnel : Organizational psychology : Occupations: Work environment: Index : Outline

Workplace violence refers to violence that originates from employees or employers and threatens employers and/or other employees.


The definition of work related violence that has received pan-European acceptance is as follows:

“incidents where people are abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work, involving an explicit or implicit challenge to their safety, well-being or health”.

This can involve violence resulting from industrial disputes committed by or against unions, although this is not a major factor in most incidents.

This definition establishes violence as a behaviour with the potential to cause harm. Broadly speaking there are three forms:

  • Non-physical violence (intimidation, abuse, threats etc.)
  • Physical violence (punching, kicking, pushing etc.)
  • Aggravated physical violence (use of weapons, e.g. guns, knives, syringes, pieces of furniture, bottles, glasses, etc.)

Violence in all its forms is a concern for staff and management alike. For employers, violence can lead to poor morale and a poor image for the organisation, making it difficult to recruit and keep staff. It can also mean extra costs, such as those associated with absenteeism, higher insurance premiums and legal fees, fines and compensation payments where negligence is proven.

For employees, violence can cause pain, distress and even disability or death. Physical attacks are obviously dangerous but serious or persistent verbal abuse or threats also can damage employees’ health through anxiety or stress. Peter Vajda identifies workplace gossip as a form of workplace violence, noting that it is "essentially a form of attack."[citation needed]

Why do people actually resort to violence?

Violence is an example of what is termed ‘functional’ behaviour. [citation needed] That which can be used by an individual to get what they want, or to provide them with some tangible benefit. They may want faster or better service, they may desire attention or alternatively to be left alone or scare people off. They may wish to acquire cash, drugs or other goods that don’t belong to them. They may crave the excitement or notoriety, or it may be the only way they can express themselves or influence others.

Types of workplace violence

By understanding the cause of the violence we will be better able to eliminate, reduce or manage the risk of it occurring. There are four main types of work related violence:

Criminal violence

Violence perpetrated by individuals who have no relationship with the organization or victim. Normally their aim is to access cash, stock, drugs, or perform some other criminal or unlawful act.

Service user violence

Violence perpetrated by individuals who are recipients of a service provided in the workplace or by the victim. This often arises through frustration with service delivery or some other by-product of the organisations core business activities.

Worker–on-worker violence

Violence perpetrated by individuals working within the organization; colleagues, supervisors, managers etc. This is often linked to protests against enforced redundancies, grudges against specific members of staff, or in response to disciplinary action that the individual perceives as being unjust.

Domestic violence

Violence perpetrated by individuals, outside of the organization, but who have a relationship with an employee e.g. partner, spouses or acquaintances. This is often perpetrated within the work setting, simply because the offender knows where a given individual is during the course of a working day.

Workplace violence and aggression

Buss (1961)[citation needed] identified eight types of aggression:

  • Verbal-passive-indirect (failure to deny false rumors about target, failure to provide information needed by target)
  • Verbal-passive-direct ("silent treatment", failure to return communication, i.e. phone calls, e-mails)
  • Verbal-active-indirect (spreading false rumors, belittling ideas or work)
  • Verbal-active-direct (insulting, acting condescendingly, yelling)
  • Physical-passive-indirect (causing others to create a delay for the target)
  • Physical-passive-direct (reducing target's ability to contribute, i.e. scheduling them to present at the end of the day where fewer people will be attending)
  • Physical-active-indirect (theft, destruction of property, unnecessary consumption of resources needed by the target)
  • Physical-active-direct (physical attack, nonverbal, vulgar gestures directed at the target)

In a study performed by Baron and Neuman (1996)[citation needed], researchers found pay cuts and pay freezes, use of part time employees, change in management, increased diversity, computer monitoring of employee performance, reengineering, and budget cuts were all significantly linked to increased workplace aggression. The study also showed a substantial amount of evidence linking unpleasant physical conditions (high temperature, poor lighting) and high negative affect, which facilitates workplace aggression. [1]

Why should I undertake risk assessments?

In the United Kingdom there is a legal obligation to complete risk assessments. Regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 states that, “every employer shall make a suitable and sufficient assessment of:

  • The risks to the health and safety of his (or her) employees to which they are exposed whilst they are at work; and
  • The risks to the health and safety of persons not in his employment arising out of or in connection with the conduct of him or his undertaking”.

Regulation 4 then obliges the employer to apply a hierarchy of risk controls.

In other countries, occupational health laws are also in place and commonly compel employers to take a similar approach to providing a safe and healthy place of work.

In addition to completing assessments in order to satisfy your legal requirements, you may want to consider their practical value:

  • They can be instrumental in reducing the number of ‘safety critical’ incidents that occur
  • They underpin a process that creates a safe, secure and welcoming environment, which is likely to enhance corporate image as well as customer confidence and loyalty
  • They ensure time and resources, including expenditure, are targeted efficiently and effectively

What exactly is a risk assessment?

Risk assessment can be described as the ‘systematic examination of work activities to determine if there are any ‘hazards’ that are likely to expose workers to the threat of harm or injury’.

A ‘hazard’ can be described as anything with the potential to cause harm; including people, objects and situations.

Any risk assessment must identify:

  • The nature of the hazard and potential for harm
  • The factors that increase the likelihood of staff exposure to the hazard
  • The measures necessary to eliminate, reduce or manage the risk of exposure to the named hazard

High-risk workplaces

The following elements are commonly found in workplaces with the highest recorded incidence of workplace violence:

Occupational groups at higher risk from workplace violence

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety lists the following higher risk occupations.[2]

  • health care employees
  • correctional officers
  • social services employees
  • teachers
  • municipal housing inspectors
  • public works employees
  • retail employees

Dealing with disgruntled employees

When an employee is angry with an organization, organizational policies, or coworkers, it is important for the issue to be taken seriously before the issue escalates into aggression or violence. Workplace aggressors and those who are likely to commit an act of violence are more than likely to verbalize their frustrations, so personnel should be trained to recognize these cues and apt to deal with them. The following are tactics to use when dealing with an angry employee:

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Give the employee full attention. Stop what you were doing and show that you are taking the conversation seriously.
  • Speak and move calmly and slowly.
  • Sit, and encourage the employee to sit also. Arrange seating you so are situated closest to the door.
  • Try to create a relaxed environment.
  • Be aware of cultural differences. Don't make assumptions based on your own background. Be aware of personal space and appropriate eye contact.
  • Encourage the employee to tell you why they are upset.
  • Do not interrupt. If you do not understand, ask them to clarify.
  • Acknowledge the employee's feelings.
  • Ask for specific examples.
  • If their complaint is valid, accept responsibility and criticism.
  • Try to define the true problem.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Be open and honest.
  • Encourage the employee that you will investigate the problem and search for a solution. Assure them that you will be following up with them as soon as possible. Thank them for bringing the problem to your attention.


Preventative maintenance

The Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

, a program originally designated to assist persons with addiction problems, and later offered family, marital, and financial counseling, now offers assistance in reducing workplace violence. The EAP, through counseling and consultation, aids in increasing employee productivity, efficiency, and morale in the workplace, which in turn decreases employee turnover and absenteeism. The EAP has designed a general program for diffusing workplace anger and violence. The elements of the program are:

  • Diagnosis. An employee of an organization asks for assistance and the EAP staff attempts to diagnose the problem.
  • Treatment. Counseling or therapy is provided. If the EAP is unable to assist the employee, the employee may be referred to the appropriate professional outside of the organization.
  • Screening. Periodic screening and examinations of employees, especially of those in highly stressful positions, to detect warning signs of violence or aggression.
  • Prevention. Employers use education and persuasion to communicate to employees with high risk levels that there must be alternative solutions to dealing and coping with stress.


See also


External links

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