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One in Seven Employees Don’t Feel Safe at Work

March 22, 2019
News about workplace violence leaves workers and HR professionals unsure about how to respond.

With workplace violence on the rise, one out of seven employees don’t feel safe at work, and neither they nor human resources personnel know how to respond if an incident occurs, according to recent research conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Nearly half of HR professionals say their organization had at some point experienced a workplace violence incident at some level—up from 36% in 2012. Of those who reported having experienced workplace violence, more than half said their organization had experienced an incident in the last year.

“Companies and HR should and must do more to make employees feel safe at work,” says SHRM president Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. “This data shows we have a lot of work to do in terms of security, prevention, training and response.”

Just last February, after being informed that he was being terminated, an employee opened fire at an Aurora, Ill., warehouse facility operated by manufacturer Henry Pratt Co., leaving five people dead, including an HR manager, and several police officers injured. That made national news, as did other fatal workplace shootings that took place at a newspaper in Annapolis, Md., and the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

Although not workplace-related, the recent horrific killings at two mosques in New Zealand are bound to have ratcheted up some workers’ anxiety levels.

Unfortunately, when it comes to workplace violence in this country, SHRM finds that nearly one-third of U.S. employees and nearly one out of five HR professionals are currently unsure or don’t know what to do if they witness or are involved in a workplace violence incident.

“The goal for employers is making your workplace a ‘difficult’ target for violent offenders and being prepared to react quickly,” Taylor explains. “If you make the investment in security and preparation, your employees will feel safer and respect you for valuing their safety.”

Although a majority of HR professionals say their organizations already provide training to employees on how to respond to an act of workplace violence, more than one-third do not provide such training to employees. While almost all say their company has a process for identifying employees with a history of violence, over half are unsure whether they have a workplace violence prevention program.

Of those responding to the survey, 48% say their organizations have experienced an incident of workplace violence at some point, up from the 36% who reported this during a similar survey that was conducted in 2012. Although those surveyed this year were not asked to speculate on differences, SHRM notes that a possible explanation for the rise in reported incidents may be due to changing attitudes towards workplace behavior.

“With the rise of the #MeToo movement, as well as organizations’ growing focus on inclusivity, it is likely that in the last seven years, HR professionals have come to view more types of behavior as problematic and indicative of future workplace violence,” SHRM adds.

Less Zero Tolerance

The research also found that the kind of reaction to workplace violence often varies depending on specific aspects of the incident. Zero tolerance policies seem to be losing favor among organizations, with many opting to consider each incident in context, this year’s research finds. In 2012, 47% said their company had a policy of zero tolerance while only 39% in this year’s survey say their organization has zero tolerance for workplace violence and would immediately terminate the employee.

Of those polled, 72% said their organization’s response to an incident would depend on the specific circumstances, compared to 61% in 2012. “Overall, 71% of workers say their workplace is safe. But those who are employed by organizations with programs to deal with workplace violence feel slightly more secure,” SHRM notes.

In addition, 86% of employees who are unaware of any past incidents of workplace violence at their company say they feel very safe or safe. In comparison, 64% of those who say there has been an instance of workplace violence at their organization within the past year say they feel secure.

According to SHRM’s research, workers understandably feel more safe when their employers provide prevention and training response programs. Another important benefit is that more employees know how to react to an incident when their employers already have workplace violence prevention and employee response training programs in place.

“Education has to start from the top down, and often that starts with HR,” Taylor stresses. “There’s naturally a lot of fear when people think of workplace violence. But preparing and providing employees with hands-on training helps empower them to react and take action in the event of a worst-case scenario.”

Of the more than 2,000 who responded to the SHRM research—which included separate surveys of both HR managers and line employees conducted in late February—90% of the HR professionals say their organizations have processes for identifying potential or current employees with a history of violence, mainly through background checks and employment or personal reference checks.

While this type of screening is common, according to both surveys, organizations are less likely to have programs to prevent workplace violence or train workers on how to respond to such incidents. Although most workers consider themselves capable of dealing with workplace violence, 30% of employees and 19% of HR professionals say they feel ill-equipped to deal with violence in the workplace.

SHRM recently introduced an online toolkit called Understanding Workplace Violence Prevention and Response, containing information and resources for addressing workplace violence. Available to members of SHRM, the kit includes instructions on how to create a prevention plan; define and identify workplace violence; recognize warning signs; create a response team; and respond to a workplace violence incident.

About the Author

David Sparkman

David Sparkman is founding editor of ACWI Advance (, the newsletter of the American Chain of Warehouses Inc. He also heads David Sparkman Consulting, a Washington D.C. area public relations and communications firm. Prior to these he was director of industry relations for the International Warehouse Logistics Association. Sparkman has also been a freelance writer, specializing in logistics and freight transportation. He has served as vice president of communications for the American Moving and Storage Association, director of communications for the National Private Truck Council, and for two decades with American Trucking Associations on its weekly newspaper, Transport Topics.

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