Workplace Violence Laws

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 What is Workplace Violence?

Workplace violence consists of acts of harassment, intimidation, physical violence, or other threatening behavior that occurs at the worksite. Workplace violence ranges from threats made by a co-worker all the way to homicide. It can be committed by a co-worker or a supervisor. Workplace violence can also be committed by a customer, client, or visitor.

States have enacted workplace safety laws to deter workplace violence. The purpose of these laws is to create a workplace environment where employees can focus on their jobs, not be fearful for their safety.

What are Some Examples of Workplace Violence?

Workplace violence consists of a variety of behaviors. While each industry has acts of workplace violence unique to that industry, some types of workplace violence can happen anywhere. These include:

  • Altercations between co-workers: Frequently, one co-worker with underlying mental health, substance abuse, or personal issues may initiate an altercation.
  • Conduct that constitutes harassment: Harassment includes creation of a hostile work environment. This harassment consists of offensive conduct directed at someone because of their race, gender, religion, national origin, age, or disability.
  • Conduct that constitutes bullying: Workplace bullying is mistreatment directed to an employee. Bullying consists of verbal and nonverbal abuse. Bullying consists of humiliating, degrading, ridiculing, and shouting at an employee. Victims of workplace bullying suffer mental or physical harm that interferes with their ability to work.
  • Physical misconduct: This includes fistfights between co-workers, throwing things at an employee, pushing, shoving, or otherwise making unwelcome contact with the victim’s person.
  • “Ganging up” on an employee: This occurs when two or more workers engage in ridicule or practical jokes against a co-worker.

Workplace violence is not limited to acts committed by employees against other employees. In a number of industries, individuals other than employees commit the violence. For example, healthcare workers who work in a nursing home can be the victim of workplace violence. These workers face violence from angry patients, the families of patients, and visitors to a facility.

Fast food workers who operate a drive-thru late at night are also subject to workplace violence. These workers can be physically assaulted by customers. These workers may be threatened by robbers and burglars who intend to steal cash from the restaurant.

What are the Consequences of Workplace Violence?

An employee who has engaged in workplace violence may be charged with criminal activity, such as assault or battery. If the workplace violence occurred within the scope of employment, the employee can file a workers compensation claim. Workers compensation benefits are awarded without a worker having to prove the employer was at fault or responsible. Workers compensation provides medical benefits and wage replacement benefits for disability caused by workplace violence.

In the case of severe injuries, an injured worker may be able to sue the employer in court. Say, for example, that an employee is assaulted on the worksite premises by a third party. The employer knew that the premises were unsafe, but did nothing to render them safe. The employee may sue the employer for damages. The lawsuit would be based on the employer’s negligence. If, for example, an employer fails to conduct a reasonable background check on an employee who has a history of workplace violence, and that employee injures a co-worker, the co-worker may sue the employer. The co-worker may sue on the grounds of negligent hiring or retention.

An employer may discipline an employee who has committed workplace violence. Discipline can include suspension, demotion, reassignment, or termination. The employer may require the employee to undergo anger management or other counseling. An employer must tread carefully here. An employer may be tempted to believe that mental illness is behind acts of workplace violence. An employer terminates an employee for workplace violence because the employer thinks the employee is mentally ill.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal law covering most employers, prevents termination of employees solely because they are disabled. This does not leave employers powerless, though. If an employee has a known mental disability causing them to engage in workplace violence, an employer can act. The employer can terminate the employee for the acts of violence themselves, not for the disability. Such an employer complies with the law, provided the employer would discipline a non-disabled employee for the same acts. No law requires an employer to retain an employee who commits workplace violence.

Employees at whom workplace violence is directed may sustain physical or mental trauma. These employees can avail themselves of employee assistance programs (EAPs). However, if the offender is not removed from the victim’s workplace, the victim may experience negative health effects. This can cause the victim to miss days from work, to seek medical assistance, and ultimately, to resign. Because of the frequency and severity of workplace violence, many companies have an official policy prohibiting such conduct. The policy is typically outlined in an employee handbook.

A workplace violence policy contains the following components:

  • A clear statement that the company does not tolerate workplace violence.
  • Examples of workplace violence.
  • How an employee who is the victim of workplace violence can complain.
  • What happens once a complaint is filed. Typically, when receiving a complaint, management conducts an investigation. If a supervisor is committing the violence, a person higher in the management chain conducts the investigation.
  • The punishment for workplace violence. Punishments can range from verbal warnings to written warnings to formal sanctions. Job consequences can include being placed on leave, demotion, suspension, and termination.
  • A statement that an employee who complains of workplace violence will not be retaliated against. Retaliation occurs when an employee files a complaint, and the employer, in response, takes a negative job action against the employee. Negative job actions include suspension, demotion, pay cuts, and termination,

What Can an Employer Do to Prevent Workplace Violence?

Workplace violence can occur no matter how carefully an employer acts to prevent it. However, workplace violence is not something inevitable. Employers can take a variety of measures to deter or prevent workplace violence. These include:

  • Establishing a workplace prevention program. While this is not legally required in most states, it serves an important purpose. A workplace violence prevention program informs employees that allegations of workplace violence will be promptly investigated.
  • Providing safety education training. Safety education training describes what constitutes workplace violence. This training also covers how employees should respond if they observe or are victimized by workplace violence. Training also includes advice on how employees can protect themselves from workplace violence. Employers can have an outside company conduct training on de-escalation and diffusion.
  • Measures that secure the work site. To the extent the law permits, employers can take action to detect and prevent workplace violence. Take the example of employees operating a restaurant’s drive-thru service late at night. These employees frequently work alone and without supervision. Measures to secure such a worksite can include extra lighting in the parking lot area, alarm systems, video surveillance, and security guards.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with a Workplace Violence Claim?

If you believe you have been the victim of workplace violence, you should contact an workplace attorney. An experienced sexual harassment attorney near you can review the facts of your case, advise you of your rights, and represent you in workers compensation proceedings and litigation.

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