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Why Workplace Violence Doesn’t Exist Without Harassment

Colleauges gossiping with sad businesswoman in foreground

Everyone is entitled to a safe workplace, and most companies have a workplace violence policy. But despite these policies, 2 million American workers report that they are victims of workplace violence every year.

According to OSHA, workplace violence is defined as:

“…any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.”

To reduce the frequency of these types of incidents, it’s important to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the company and the employees when it comes to workplace violence. Organizations should also look at precipitating factors. For example, employees’ stress levels are at an all-time high, which has translated to more aggressive behavior at work.

Because physical acts of violence and homicides attract the most attention when it comes to this issue, it’s easy to overlook the part of the definition that happens more commonly: harassment, intimidation and other threatening behavior. This includes unwelcome words or actions that should be known to be offensive. These words and actions can be physically implied, spoken verbally or sent in writing via email or text message.

Harassment and threats are often warning signs that someone could become violent, so it’s important to be aware of these behaviors in coworkers and employees. that might lead to future violence. In fact, every workplace violence policy should include a section on harassment.

Bullying is a common type of harassment and probably the least reported because unlike the bullying you see in the schoolyard it can be handled among adults, right? Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case. Since harassment is more psychological than physical, it’s harder to detect. The victim has to come forward, which is often hard for them to do so because tattling feels so juvenile.

But feeling uncomfortable in the workplace is unacceptable, especially when the victim believes that they can’t defend themselves. One of the most challenging issues to address is that harassment can also come from customers. If organizations believe that the customer is always right, regardless of the context, employees may not feel comfortable coming forward with this information.

It’s important for workers to know that harassment should not be tolerated regardless of who is doing it. Companies should also be aware of the types of employees who are most at risk of harassment from customers, including lone workers, people who work with unstable people, and those who provide care or services—especially services that involve alcohol or exchanging money.

Workplace harassment can result in a decline in morale. It can also disrupt productivity. Safety professionals should communicate that there is zero tolerance for this type of behavior.

EHS leaders can take a number of additional steps to prevent harassment and other forms of workplace violence:

  1. Ensure employees know they are in a safe, open-door environment to report any type of harassment that is offending, socially excluding and, most importantly, unwanted no matter who it comes from (coworkers, customers and even management).
  2. Document the behavior; if it continues then it supports a case for legal action.
  3. Have employees sign workplace violence, harassment and social media policies. This ensures that workers understand where the company stands and what is expected of them.
  4. Employees should be encouraged to participate in continuous learning opportunities. Often, once a workplace violence policy is signed it’s forgotten. Continual training is a great way to keep it fresh.

Every employee and manager should be aware of the company’s stance on workplace violence, especially where harassment is concerned. Don’t turn a blind eye to harassment, because it could escalate to violence.

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