By now, we’ve all heard about the horrific and very public shooting of two television news employees and a third woman in Roanoke, Va. The two young journalists who died were killed by a former employee of the same station where the journalists worked. In a fax received after the shooting, the attacker alleged that he was repeatedly harassed, bullied, and discriminated against for being Black and homosexual. On Twitter, he alleged that one of the victims had made racist comments to him and that the other “went to HR on me after working with me one time!!!”

While incidences like this are shocking, they are, unfortunately, not uncommon. According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), homicide is the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States, and the main cause of death for women in the workplace. Of the 4,547 fatal workplace injuries that occurred in the U.S. in 2010, 506 were workplace homicides, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. Nearly two million Americans report being the victims of workplace violence every year, and OSHA says many more cases go unreported. “The truth is, workplace violence can strike anywhere, anytime, and no one is immune,” the agency notes on its website.

Companies can take steps to help reduce the chances of workplace violence by understanding what the risk factors are and developing policies to minimize opportunities for workers to be victims of such conduct.

The Cost of Workplace Violence

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) calls the cost of workplace violence staggering.

The impact on organizations can include:

  • Temporary or permanent absence of skilled employees
  • Psychological damage
  • Property damage, theft and sabotage
  • Obstacles to productivity
  • Diverting management resources
  • Increased security, workers’ compensation and personnel costs
  • Legal action and associated liability

Risk Factors

Although workplace violence can happen anywhere and can be difficult to foresee, there are some factors that may increase risks for particular employees, companies, or sites. OSHA has identified several factors that can make employees vulnerable:

  • Exchanging money with the public
  • Working with volatile, unstable people
  • Working alone or in isolated areas
  • Providing services and care
  • Working where alcohol is served

Time of day and location, such as working late nights or in high-crime areas, can also increase the risk of workplace violence.

While workplace killings often receive the most attention, there are many different types of violence. The DOL cites several examples, including: concealing or using a weapon; physical assault upon oneself or someone else; damaging, destroying or sabotaging property; intimidating or frightening others; harassing, stalking or showing too much attention to another person; physically aggressive acts, such as shaking fists, kicking, pounding on desks, punching walls or screaming at others; verbal abuse; and direct or indirect threats.

And although current and former employees are most often the ones who commit workplace violence, many other acts are committed by those outside the company. This can include domestic violence and violence perpetrated by customers and other members of the public.

How to Minimize Risks

In order prevent incidences of workplace violence to the greatest extent possible, companies need to take several steps.

1. Develop a Policy and Strictly Enforce It

If companies have not specifically addressed workplace violence, they need to create and implement a workplace violence policy. Any existing policies should be reviewed to see if they are still up to date and relevant. The policy should clearly spell out that certain behaviors will not be tolerated, including threats, physical and emotional abuse, damaging company property, and bullying. It should also lay out disciplinary actions and what steps will be taken when employees violate any policy terms.

Once the policy has been established, all employees need to be trained properly and regularly reminded of it.

2. Understand Specific Risks

Risks can increase by industry, location, interactions with customers, company culture, and other factors. Companies need to understand where they may be vulnerable, and take steps to strengthen those areas. This can involve supplementing current security measures, such as alarms, sign-in systems, and on-site cameras.

3. Create a Reporting System

It’s important to allow employees the opportunity to raise concerns about actual and potential violence in a way that they feel comfortable. Employers should establish a point person or clear chain of reporting so employees know exactly who to contact if they see something that concerns them. It may be worth creating an anonymous reporting system.

4. Consider Background Checks

Running criminal background checks on potential new hires can help alert companies to those who may have a past history of violence. However, employers must proceed carefully with background checks. In 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued new guidelines for employers, the guidance emphasized that employers must be very careful to avoid any type of discriminatory hiring practices when considering criminal history. Along with federal laws, some states and cities have laws regulating how background checks can be used in hiring decisions.

5. Remember Labor and Employment Laws

Employers should also remember the implications that labor and employment laws may have on any workplace violence policy. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against employees with disabilities. Employers should avoid attempting to diagnose employees’ mental health conditions themselves. Attempting to do this could lead to an ADA-based lawsuit. Employers should consult with HR, in-house counsel, and outside counsel to help sort out how labor and employment laws may impact a successful workplace violence policy.

6. Prepare for the Worst

Although companies can take steps to lessen the chances of workplace violence, it’s impossible to completely safeguard the workplace. This means companies need to prepare themselves and their employees ahead of time for the possibility of threats, injury, or even life-threatening situations.