Best practices for developing a workplace violence prevention program in the modern workplace

In today's spectrum of workplaces - from offices to distribution centers to remote and hybrid work - how can organization leaders keep their employees safe from harm?

The term "workplace violence" has become part of the American consciousness, conjuring frightening daily headlines about targeted violence at workplaces, schools and public venues. The active assailant is our collective boogeyman, appearing seemingly without warning to injure and kill innocent people with guns and other weapons.

Yet workplace violence encompasses a much broader spectrum of behaviors beyond the deadly actions of active assailants.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines workplace violence as "any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site." More than two million incidents of workplace violence are reported annually, and violence is the third-leading cause of death at work in the United States. 1

Given these staggering statistics, what should employers do to maintain a safe and healthy workplace? The short answer is early intervention. The following three best practices comprise an effective, proactive strategy to protect team members from violence, while building a strong culture in the process.

Acknowledge workplace violence exists

First, employers must acknowledge the subtle, insidious acts of workplace violence and make it clear to everyone that any form of harassment, bullying, intimidation or other harmful behavior is unacceptable.

This may sound obvious, yet in many cases, workplace violence has somehow become normalized. In a recent, large-scale survey, business leaders reported their employees have "workplace violence fatigue," which means that threats or concerning incidents occur so often that employees become accustomed to the bad behavior of their co-workers and managers.

Worse, employees tend not to report concerning incidents because they don't believe it would make any difference. 2 This is a culture problem that leaders must address and change through modeling positive behavior, communicating regularly that any form of violent or harassing behavior is not acceptable and holding transgressors accountable.

Develop a workplace violence prevention program

Another best practice for leaders to safeguard the workforce and organizational reputation is to develop a workplace violence prevention program. The heart of this program is early intervention and encouraging everyone in the organization to recognize and report concerning behaviors. Most would-be perpetrators exhibit warning signs including:

• Inability to cope with new and major personal life problems: divorce, illness, financial or legal issues.

• Increased use of alcohol and/or illegal drugs.

• Unexplained increase in absenteeism.

• Noticeable decline in appearance and hygiene.

• Bullying or other aggressive behavior.

• Depression or withdrawal.

• Resistance and overreaction to changes in policy and procedures.

• Noticeably unstable, emotional behavior.

• Suicidal; comments about "putting things in order."

• Behavior that is suspect of paranoia ("everybody is against me").

• Escalation of domestic problems into the workplace.

• Fixation on violence, firearms or other weapons.

Note: It is important to recognize that these warning signs do not predict violent behavior on their own. Many people experience mental health concerns but find productive ways to manage them. When a person loses that ability, it indicates they may need help.

Remember that reporting is supporting

Finally, it's important to recognize that the purpose of reporting is supporting employees who may be struggling. This is the crux of early intervention.

Every company needs a strong employee assistance program with robust resources to help people who are having difficulty navigating life stressors and other challenges successfully. The goal is to help these team members get the help they need to cope with or solve their challenges.

The reality for your organization is that reporting is supporting. It indicates an ethic of care within an organization. The goal is to help everyone in the organization understand what violence and harassment are, how stress is a contributor, how to identify and resolve early conflicts or issues, and determine which situations might require threat assessment and management support.

Sikich's Workforce Risk Management team can walk you through best-practice-based workplace violence prevention principles and help you design an effective program that provides a safer, stronger culture for your workforce and organization.

• Matthew Doherty is the managing director of the workforce risk management practice at Sikich. Contact him at

1 Workplace violence. (n.d.). United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

2 2022 state of protective intelligence report. (2022). Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence.

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