Workplace violence: drawing the line against employee misconduct

Clarence Belnavis, The Daily Record Newswire

The workplace is simply a cross section of society. While there is an expectation that employees will conduct themselves in a positive manner, this is not always the case. The reality is that employees bring to work all of their idiosyncrasies, concerns, biases and inclinations.

The potential for a negative interaction in the workplace is exacerbated by the fact that employees come from varied backgrounds and experiences. They will not always relate well to each other.

Moreover, there may be personal issues — marital problems, financial concerns, mental health issues — weighing on employees that can result in negative behavior.
Statistics indicate that workplace violence decreased between 1999 and 2010, but about 2 million American workers a year still report that they’ve been victims of workplace violence, the federal Occupational Health & Safety Administration reports. And the agency warns that many more instances aren’t reported.

Admittedly, some jobs are inherently more dangerous than others — taxicab drivers, security guards and convenience store clerks, for example. However, workplace violence should be the concern of all employers. Legally, employers are required to furnish workers with a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or physical harm.

The source of workplace violence is not always from a co-worker. Anyone whom an employee comes in contact with while working — clients, customers and vendors — can perpetuate acts of violence.

One of the best preventive measures an employer can take is to create a work environment where it is abundantly clear that violence and other forms of inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated.

Standards of conduct are fairly common in employee handbooks and policy manuals, but it is always a good idea to reinforce them through training and appropriate disciplinary action. By addressing horseplay, harsh words and similar conduct, one can head off negative behavior before it escalates. Threats should not be minimalized or dismissed; follow-up and corrective action should take place where appropriate.

When the work environment is polarized, or ostracism is taking place, supervisors and managers should actively engage their employees to determine the cause. It is easy to avoid addressing interpersonal conflicts, but these disputes can fester into workplace violence if not adequately addressed in timely fashion.

The job performance of managers and supervisors should be tied to how well the members of their workgroup interact with each other. This will help ensure that managers and supervisors are motivated to address and manage interpersonal disputes.

Company policies, handbooks and other statements of acceptable conduct should clearly state that negative behavior by nonemployees such as customers and vendors also will not be tolerated.

This is tough for many companies because they have worked hard to create and foster relationships with such persons and entities. The last thing a company may want to do is jeopardize that relationship by questioning potentially inappropriate conduct.

However, the company can open itself up to legal exposure if it can be demonstrated that it knew of an unsafe situation and did not act. Moreover, the company will find it hard to prevent misconduct by employees if it allows such misconduct from customers and vendors.

The effort to enforce appropriate standards should not be new to employers. Companies should already be delineating and enforcing standards to prohibit discrimination or harassment based on protected statuses such as race, age, gender, national origin, disability, etc. If employers can investigate and resolve these issues, then they already have the key processes in place to investigate and resolve potential workplace safety issues.

The risk of workplace violence can’t be eliminated totally; however, employers can reduce it significantly by creating a culture of zero tolerance for such misconduct.


Clarence Belnavis is a partner in the Portland office of Fisher & Phillips LLP. His practice is focused on litigation, including disability, race and gender discrimination; retaliation; sexual harassment; and wrongful discharge. He also represents employers in wage and hour claims, employment class actions and traditional labor matters. Contact him at 503-242-4262 or at