According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, workplace violence consists not only of actual physical violence but also includes threats to harm, harassment and intimidation. It encompasses any such action occurring in a workplace, whether involving employees, customers, family members or friends of employees or customers, or complete strangers. Legal remedies for workplace violence depend on the type of action and those involved, but attorneys advise that employers must be proactive with policies to protect their companies from liability.
Workplace Violence Policies
All but the very smallest companies and institutions are advised to have written policies and procedures regarding workplace violence. It might not be necessary for "mom and pop" operations. Employees should be familiar with these policies and any subsequent legal and disciplinary actions for violations. The entity should clearly state in the policy that it supports prosecution to the full extent of the law for those engaging in workplace violence. Employers should have employees sign a statement stating that they read and understood this policy.
Remedies for Victims
If injured on the job, employees would normally file for workers' compensation, which pays medical bills for treatment. However, workers' compensation might not cover injuries resulting from workplace violence in most states due to "personal animus" exceptions in the program. That means a person intended to injure a worker for personal reasons, not because he was an employee. If the perpetrator would attack a different individual who held the same position in the workplace, then it is not considered personal animus. If the decision falls under the personal animus exception, a victim of workplace violence might be able to sue the employer for negligence.
As the saying goes, "Prevention is worth a pound of cure," and that holds true for minimizing workplace violence. Employers should use all legal means available to ensure that people prone to violence do not become part of their workforce. Conduct lawful background checks on potential employees, or on current employees if this has not been done before. The employer should consult with a labor attorney to make sure appropriate and legal authorization and disclosure documents are used, and that no legal boundaries regarding workers' rights are overstepped. For example, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers cannot discriminate against employees who suffer from mental health issues or other disabilities.
Since those committing violence in the workplace might be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the company or institution should have a substance abuse testing policy in place. The policy must adhere to all federal and state laws. The employer should make clear to employees that negative status is a condition of employment. Other policies that might aid employers in both preventing workplace violence and protecting them from legal liability in case of an incident include a process for reporting any harassment, bullying or intimidation; subsequent threat investigation; and a crisis management plan.
- Pepper Hamilton LLP: Workplace Violence — Legal Liability and Prevention
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: The USDA Handbook on Workplace Violence Prevention and Response
- College of New Rochelle: Workplace Violence Policy
- Fisher and Phillips LLP: Preventive Measures to Reduce the Likelihood of Workplace Violence