Safety Articles

How to Protect Employees From Aggressive Behavior at Work

At a recent workshop with about 250 attendees representing approximately 190 organizations, I performed an informal survey. I asked for a show of hands from those whose workplace had a written anti-bullying policy. Less than half of those in attendance raised their hands. I did the same for a workplace anti-violence policy. The response was better than half but still less than two-thirds.

That is insufficient. More companies need to be aware of what needs to be included in an anti-violence policy in order to protect employees from aggressive, unwanted behavior at work.

What to Include

Some experts suggest that having both an anti-bullying policy and an anti-violence policy is unnecessary and redundant. That is not true. There will be some overlap between the two, especially on the issue of threatening behaviors, but there are fundamental differences that cannot be rolled into a single comprehensive policy. For instance, not all bullying involves threatening behaviors, and not all threats can be defined as simply bullying. In organizations that adopt both types of policies, care should be taken to ensure consistency between the two at points of overlap, especially in the area of threatening behaviors.

Effective anti-violence policies will include the following seven elements:

1. Acknowledge violence as an occupational safety and health hazard.

2. Provide clear definitions of threatening behaviors; they will be regarded as threatening violence and workplace violence, including unwanted physical contact, fighting, and pushing.

3. Outline a reporting procedure to ensure the effectiveness of the policy.

4. Describe consequences of violent behavior, including what leads to dismissal.

5. Include an action plan for educating employees concerning the policy.

6. Establish an Assessment Team, whose job it is to investigate reports of violent incidents or threats of violence in the workplace.

7. Identify provisions for employees who are victims of violence to have access to critical incident stress debriefing resources.

An anti-violence policy that identifies and prohibits violence can make employees aware of their own behaviors that might be considered in violation of the policy. It also provides a specific framework for responding to violent incidents.

What to Avoid

Be wary of the following:

• Profiles of employees who might become violent. This kind of profiling is of less-than-little value. In addition, profiles that include race, sex, or age may actually violate anti-discrimination laws. Use caution: Identify behaviors and not people.

• “Zero Tolerance” provisions. While it’s optimal to have clear guidelines for prohibited behavior, there are several possible problems with a zero-tolerance clause. An employee might violate progressive discipline practices in the workplace, and perhaps even provisions in workers’ employment contracts. Zero tolerance provisions can be abused by management. For example, a supervisor might intentionally provoke a worker into losing his or her temper in order to find grounds for dismissal. This type of policy leaves no room for any consideration of misinterpretation or cultural diversity. What might be seen as harmless and normal by people in some generational, religious, or ethnic groups could be received as a threat by members of another group.

• Failure to include equal representation on Assessment Teams. Assessment Teams that are completely one-sided, favoring members of management, may suffer a credibility crisis among workers in the event of an incident involving any sort of controversy.

Worth the Time

While most agree about the importance of developing an anti-violence policy, it may not seem like an urgent issue until an incident has occurred. It’s true: developing and tailoring such policies to your workplace can be time-consuming and tedious, but it’s far less trouble than dealing with even just one incident that might have been prevented had you taken the time to create one.

About the Author:

Gary Sheely is an associate of the Safety Institute and a Tactical Confrontation Specialist focusing on workplace violence issues. He’s published three books, including his latest one, Safe at Work: How Smart Supervisors Reduce the Risk of Workplace Violence. He conducts training workshops and has been a keynote speaker across the United States. For more information, contact: Safety Institute,,

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