Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

Workplace Violence Prevention Begins With a Formal Policy

Posted by Jon Elliott on Wed, Jun 06, 2012

Jon F. ElliottDoes your organization have a formal workplace violence prevention policy? Requirements that employers protect their employees against workplace violence are expanding throughout North America.  For example, public agencies in New York have been required to do so since 2009 (S 6441), and most employers in Ontario have required the same since 2010 (Bill 168), while Manitoba revised longstanding requirements in 2011. 

Specific requirements vary, as do professional recommendations. The latter can be followed even if no formal requirements apply to your workplace.  But it’s not very difficult to design a basic policy that covers all the appropriate elements of violence prevention in the workplace.

The first step is to adopt a policy that reflects a commitment to preventing workplace violence, and formalizing approaches to doing so. 

A written violence prevention policy establishes expectations about appropriate behavior, and clarifies the organization’s commitment to addressing inappropriate behavior.  When crafting your policy, you should consider a broad range of organizational, structural, and stylistic issues, to ensure that it fits how you and your employees do business.

Define “violence” and other unacceptable behavior

Your policy should define unacceptable behavior broadly, prohibiting a broad range of behavior that threatens employees’ physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing.  The spectrum of unacceptable behavior should include all of the following:

• Physical violence

• Hostile and threatening actions

• Harassment, bullying and intimidation – based on any individual characteristics or membership in a targeted group (such as gender, race or national origin, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation)

Many organizations also ban “horseplay” and other unprofessional behavior that may lead to incidents. Some try to ban workplace romances and relationships. You may also want to consider a ban on guns and other weapons at work – although a number of states are enacting laws sponsored by the National Rifle Association to outlaw such bans.

Make everybody responsible, and put someone in charge

Your policy should commit the organization to assessing risks in the workplace, and to responding to such risks with appropriate policies, program activities, and physical design enhancements. The policy also should assign every employee, from the CEO on down, responsibility for workplace civility and safety. It should cover incidents involving coworkers, and those involving individuals from outside the organization who suffer violence from employees or perpetrate violence against employees. 

It also should include duties not only to prevent violent behavior, but also to respond to it. You should make employees responsible for reporting unacceptable behavior to the organization (see below).  You may also want to assign some or all employees responsibility for prevention and/or intervention. But if you do, make sure there is due consideration to such employees’ organizational authority, and their personal safety.

It’s not enough to make everyone responsible, you also have to put someone in charge of ensuring that mechanisms are in place to ensure that these responsibilities are met, and that they can be met.  This might include an individual in charge of organization-wide activities, with a team or staff assigned to help, and point people assigned in each appropriate organizational sub-unit.

Establish reporting, response and disciplinary procedures

A policy is meaningless unless the organization is ready to “walk the talk,” by creating procedures where unacceptable behavior can be identified, reported, and responded to.  These procedures should include all of the following:

Reporting procedures – Reports can be made in-person, up each employee’s reporting chain, and/or directly to Human Resources, Security, a Workplace Violence Prevention Team, or a hotline.

Investigation and follow-up procedures need to be tailored to the immediacy and severity of the reported behavior.

Disciplinary procedures for offenders should reflect Zero Tolerance for unacceptable behavior, but provide for organizational responses appropriate to the extent and severity of such behavior.

These procedures should include a commitment to protect reporting employees’ confidentiality with appropriate measures.  Although anonymous reporting can unduly threaten supposed perpetrators and undermine confidence in the program, the expectation that the reporting employee’s identity will be widely shared can suppress people’s willingness to report.  The organization must provide for appropriate balancing of these conflicting tensions.

Provide for information and training

You should publish the Workplace Violence Prevention Policy to your employees, and post it in your workplace where employees and visitors can see it.  Be sure that written versions include contact information for reports.

You should also commit to providing more detailed training that explains your policy, the issues, individual and collective responsibilities, and procedures. Note that many jurisdictions require employers to train at least some employees about at least some of these issues – training in use of workplace security measures, and training in prevention of sexual harassment are the most common.

Once your policy is in place, make sure it’s implemented

Employees will figure out soon enough how serious the organization is about its policy.  A paper-only policy would be worse than useless, because employees will decide the organization is not serious – potential violators will be emboldened and potential victims will lose heart.  If an incident or lawsuit does occur, the existence of a fictional policy provides strong evidence that the employer recognized the risk of workplace violence, and chose not to take effective steps to prevent and manage this risk.


• Does my organization have a workplace violence prevention policy?

-  If so, is it a stand-alone policy or integrated within other policy(ies) (e.g., anti-discrimination, workplace safety)

• Does the policy define workplace violence and other unacceptable behavior?

• Does the policy make every employee responsible for acceptable behavior, for reporting violence and other unacceptable behavior, and/or for responses to different types of situations and incidents?

• Does the policy assign any named individual(s) to ensure its implementation?

• Does the policy describe procedures and mechanisms for reporting situations and incidents?

            - If so, does it provide for efforts to appropriately protect confidentiality?

• Does the policy describe procedures and mechanisms for timely response to situations and incidents?

• Does the policy describe procedures and mechanisms for investigation of reported situations and incidents?

• Does the policy describe disciplinary procedures and mechanisms?

• Is the policy publicized to employees, and posted in the workplace where customers and visitors will see it?

• Does the employer provide training in the policy, and in workplace practices and procedures to ensure its meaningful implementation?

• Does the policy provide for periodic reviews, and revisions as appropriate?

About the Author     

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 25 years. He was involved in developing 16 existing products, and writes quarterly updates for them all. Go to the STP Publishers website for a copy of his book, Workplace Violence Prevention: A Practical Guide.

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:



Tags: Corporate Governance, Business & Legal, Employer Best Practices, Health & Safety, Employee Rights, Workplace violence