A 2011 study estimated that some one million workers have experienced physical aggression at work in the previous two years, with millions more subjected to intimidation, humiliation and rudeness. Workers in health and social work, education and public administration are most at risk. This article examines what actions employers can take to deal with violence in the workplace.

What is meant by workplace violence?

Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behaviour that occurs at the work site. It occurs when one or more worker or manager is assaulted in circumstances relating to work. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to actual physical assaults, including criminal offences, which require the intervention of the police. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors, with the purpose or effect of violating a manager’s or worker’s dignity, affecting his or her health and/or creating a hostile work environment.

In broad terms, therefore, three types of work-related violence can be identified:

  • non-physical violence (abuse, threats, etc)

  • physical violence (punching, kicking, pushing, etc)

  • aggravated physical violence (use of weapons).

What is the employer’s liability?

There are a number of obligations on the employer relating to the health and safety of its employees, contractors and members of the public. The employer must take reasonable care to protect their employees from the risk of foreseeable injury at work and maintain a safe place of work.

In addition, an employer can be held vicariously liable for injury negligently caused by one employee acting in the course of his employment to another employee, contractor or member of the public. An employee is said to be acting in the course of his or her employment even if he or she is performing the work in contravention of a statute or a regulation.

It is in employers’ interests, therefore, to identify and address the threat or occurrence of workplace harassment and violence as failure to deal with and take reasonable steps to prevent such incidents will undermine business performance and could be unlawful.

What should an employer now do?

The most important element in any workplace prevention programme is a commitment by management and communicated in a written policy. In drawing up such a policy, the employer should consider the following elements:

  • establish clear grievance and disciplinary procedures consistent with the Acas code of practice

  • provide a clear statement to staff and service users that harassment and violence will not be tolerated and will be treated as disciplinary offences (up to and including dismissal or, if appropriate, criminal action) — together with information on how to report harassment and violence

  • ensure that everyone is aware of their harassment and violence policy and their responsibilities

  • be clear what constitutes unacceptable behaviour on the part of managers/other workers as well as service users or members of the public

  • provide a statement of the organisation’s overall approach to preventing and dealing with the risks of harassment and violence, including training

  • provide a statement that all complaints should be backed up by detailed information, making clear that false (ie malicious) accusations will not be tolerated and may result in disciplinary action

  • make clear that all parties involved will receive an impartial hearing and fair treatment and that the dignity and privacy of all will be protected

  • include information as to how the policy is to be implemented, reviewed and monitored.

What about risk assessments?

In the UK, there is a legal obligation under the health and safety legislation to complete risk assessments. In the context of workplace violence, a risk assessment may be appropriate: it can determine if there are any hazards that are likely to cause harm.

The employer could assess the risks to workers (including the risk of reasonably foreseeable violence), decide what to do to prevent or control the risks, and develop a clear management plan to achieve this.

Conclusions

The written policy has the advantage of informing employees about what behaviour in the workplace is unacceptable and explains what will happen if incidents covered by the policy occur. It should also encourage employees to report such incidents and demonstrate that management is committed to dealing with incidents involving violence.

The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) website has further detailed advice to employers on this issue.

Last reviewed 11 July 2012