Employer Legal Liability for Employee Workplace Violence

By Fenton, James W., Jr.; Kelley, Donald E. et al. | SAM Advanced Management Journal, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

Employer Legal Liability for Employee Workplace Violence


Fenton, James W., Jr., Kelley, Donald E., Ruud, William N., Bulloch, Juanita A., SAM Advanced Management Journal


With 20 people becoming homicide victims in the workplace every week, businesses can hardly ignore this threat and its legal implications. Most such homicides occur in large metropolitan areas, but business everywhere -- particularly smaller businesses -- should understand their responsibilities and legal risk. Liability arises primarily from the duty to provide a safe workplace and from common law negligence principles -- negligence in hiring and retention.

Today, U.S. society and the environment in which it operates is considered violence prone. The workplace is no exception to society's increased exposure to day-to-day violence. This fact has been documented both in the popular press (Henderson & Suris, 1996; Roan, 1994) and in academic circles (O'Leary-Kelly, Griffin, & Glew, 1996). Nationwide, about 20 people a week are killed by homicide on the job, representing, about 4% of all homicides (Henderson & Suris, 1996). The workplace, in fact, can be dangerous to your health beyond the typical risks arising from materials, tools and equipment, and heavy machinery. One must add the handgun to that list since it is used in over 75% of all workplace fatalities (Winau & Toscano, 1994).

Business firms must tackle the question of their liability for incidents of violence. What legal obligations do firms owe employees and nonemployees to shield them from the risks associated with such violence? Victims can include those who wandered into harms way through no fault of their own while either working for the firm, doing business at the firm's establishment, or innocently acting in a bystander capacity. Unfortunately, courts in a variety of jurisdictions are finding employers liable for incidents and the results of such incidents of workplace violence. This article addresses these issues and discusses some steps employers can take to reduce their legal risks.

The Reality of the Modern Day Workplace: Some Statistics on the Scope of Violence

When considering a topic like violence in the workplace and its high incidence, any number of questions are raised. Are the victims more likely to be male or female? Does any particular age group seem more prone to violence? Does any particular region of the country account for higher levels of workplace violence? What precipitates such violence?

According to the Department of Labor, homicide is the workplace's third leading cause of death. It is the leading cause of death in the workplace for women (U.S. Department of Labor, 1994; Harvey & Cosier, 1995). These statistics translate into one million persons being workplace violence victims annually. Not surprising since they represent the largest single population group, persons 25-54 years of age are most often victims of workplace homicides. Again not surprising, since small business represents the largest segment of U.S. commerce, self-employed business persons are homicide victims in almost 25% of all incidents of workplace violence (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1994). The weapon most often used is the handgun (U.S. Department of Justice, 1994). Eighty percent of all workplace homicides occur in large metropolitan cities such as New York, The primary cause of workplace homicide is robbery at night in places like gas stations and liquor stores (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1993).

According to a recent Gallup survey, workplace anger is a growing problem, it affects not only productivity and morale but is also an important ingredient of violent behavior. Younger employees age 18 to 34 are more likely to feel angry than older members of the workforce. On a geographical basis, persons located in the eastern U.S. are two times more likely to experience anger than those in other areas of the country (H.R. Magazine, 1996).

Characteristics of the Violent Person

How can one determine if an individual is prone to be violent? A number of researchers (Baron, 1994; Windau & Toscano, 1992; Friedman, 1994) have addressed this issue and provided some insight. …

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