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Why is workplace violence on the rise? A company white paper.

We are frequently asked by our clients about workplace violence, especially those clients who own a closely held business or are executives or principals in large for-profit or non-profit entities. We have also been engaged by clients after a potentially hostile employee termination has taken place. It is clear our clients have concerns about the rising number and severity of violent incidents in the U.S. and the impact violence could have on their business and their finances as well as their own lives and those of their shareholders and their

employees. And rightfully so.

Violence in the workplace is on the rise, just as it is in the United States in general. There are many theories regarding why this is so, but that broader conversation is beyond the scope of this blog. We are here to talk about the tremendous impact that an incident can have on your workplace and how – as an owner, an advisor, or an employee – you can help be part of the solution.

Why Now?

The reason we are giving this topic some airtime right now is there seems to be a growing list of factors contributing to the increase in violence, including but not limited to:

1. We are in the midst of a resurgence of COVID, largely in the form of the Delta and possibly the Lambda variants. This will invariably lead to disruptions in daily lives and our economy yet again.

2. The United States has another endemic on its hands – mental health. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) projects that 50% of the U.S. population will be treated for mental illness in their lifetime and that 20% of Americans are being treated at any given time. That’s 66,000,000 of our relatives, friends, and neighbors. And co-workers.

3. Violent crime is on the rise in this country. According to a Council on Criminal Justice study on 29 cities in July 2021, homicides are up in 2021 by 16%, aggravated assault is up by 9% and domestic violence is up as much as 8%. Note that assaults and domestic violence are habitually under-reported, so those numbers are likely much higher.

4. There is uncertainty on the global stage, exacerbated of late by the withdrawal of the U.S. military and Department of State from Afghanistan and the crisis at the southern U.S. border. Not to mention heightening tensions in other parts of the world.

5. Widespread efforts to defund police have led to higher rates of resignations and retirements from many police departments as well as an increasing unwillingness to police certain criminal acts. In many communities where defunding the police has become or is on the way to becoming policy, a “catch and release” approach has been adopted by the municipality, effectively providing criminals assurances they won’t be prosecuted for certain crimes and thus emboldening the criminal element.

6. Social media and general media influence – including the prolific distribution of inaccurate or “fake” news – is now pervasive. Many online platforms support and enable the sharing of information that encourages violence in support of ideological, religious, and political agendas. The media has also contributed to the heightened level of political divisiveness we are currently experiencing in the U.S.

7. There is no doubt our society is more litigious than ever. The legal implications of being a party to workplace violence can be devastating. OSHA “general duty” requirements to create a safe workplace are more frequently considered as the basis for lawsuits stemming from workplace violence.

What Is Workplace Violence?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), violence in the workplace takes many forms. An annual BLS survey of non-fatal assaults in the workplace that resulted in lost work time shows that the number of incidents has nearly doubled from 2011 to 2019. Some of the most common violent acts in the workplace include:

  • Stabbing, cutting, slashing, piercing

  • Threat or verbal assault

  • Intentional shooting by another person

  • Strangulation by another person

  • Hitting, kicking, beating, shoving

Who Commits Workplace Violence?

Workplace violence takes many forms and is perpetrated by a variety of assailants, including but not limited to:

  • Criminals engaged in illegal activity such as robbery, assault, shoplifting and other crimes

  • Frustrated or dissatisfied clients and customers including those angered by COVID policies

  • Disgruntled coworkers or former coworkers including hostile terminations

  • Family members, spouses, and significant others when domestic violence spills over into the workplace

The worst-case scenario for workplace violence is a mass attack where the perpetrator is determined to take lives. The U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center’s (NTAC) Mass Attacks in Public Spaces Report – 2019 contains valuable information regarding those responsible for deadly attacks in the workplace and other public spaces. Following is a list of warning signs exhibited by those who committed mass attacks:

  • Stressors within the past 5 years including any of the following:

o Observable changes in behavior

o Criminal charges

o Incident or increased incidence of domestic violence including restraining order

o Substance abuse or increased impact of substance abuse

o Impending or recent disciplinary action including termination

o Financial instability

o Family or romantic relationship

  • A triggering event such as divorce, breakup, bankruptcy, being fired from job or disciplinary action.

  • Prior threatening or concerning communication including verbal, email, blogs, or social media exchanges.

Consider the following statistics from the NTAC report regarding the prevalence of criminal charges and substance abuse among perpetrators of mass attacks in the workplace and public spaces:

1. 46% had history of using illicit drugs or misusing prescription medications.

2. 10% had history of both substance abuse and domestic violence.

3. 51% had a criminal history not including minor traffic violations.

4. 30% had faced prior charges for violent offenses such as assault, robbery, and domestic violence.

5. 50% had history of violence toward others but not all were charged.

6. 35% had committed domestic violence but only half were charged.

All of these warning signs may be part of what we call the “escalation continuum,” which is a long, slow slide toward committing significant acts of violence. Working backward from After Action Reports (AAR) on some of these events, one can see these warning signs are often obvious, discernible, and indicative of trends especially if they begin to occur more frequently or increase in severity, but also when several signs may begin to surface at the same time.

What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

The devastating impact that an incident of workplace violence can have on an organization and its owners, employees and customers is immeasurable especially when permanent injuries or even death occur. Consider the following impacts:

  • Negative press and tainted reputation

  • Loss of customers and income

  • Temporary/permanent absence of skilled employee(s)

  • Replacement costs of that employee or those employees

  • Psychological damage to all stakeholders