Workplace Violence Expert: Don’t Wait for Tragedy to Develop a Plan

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL ( – Most organizations spend little to no resources on violence prevention and mitigation – until there is an incident. Being prepared is key, according to an expert.

“When it comes to workplace violence, there are two kinds of companies: those that have had a problem with workplace violence and those that will have a problem with workplace violence, because If you have employees, at some point it’s likely that that company will have an issue with workplace violence,” said Oscar Villanueva, managing director of Security Services at R3 Continuum. “There’s always the risk of having workplace violence at your organization.”

At a session during the recent Risk Insurance Management Society’s annual conference, Villanueva offered insights based on his 30 plus years in dealing with workplace violence and explained that every company – regardless of size, should take steps to prevent or at least mitigate such incidents.

The Numbers

An estimated two million people are victims of workplace violence in the U.S. annually. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health report 20,870 private industry workers experienced trauma from non-fatal violence in 2019.

The costs to employers are enormous. Each year, private companies experience more than 16,000 lost workdays due to workplace violence, according to estimates.

Additionally, there may be liability for organizations that fail to provide a workplace free of hazards, per the OSH Act of 1970. A company that has been the scene of violence may also be liable not only to its employees but others present, such as clients, vendors and contractors.

“Obviously, there can be litigation and the payouts can be significant,” Villanueva said. “The last numbers I read is that a payout for a claim of workplace violence is on the average of $500,000.”

But employers generally spend their time thinking about providing the best products and services and maximizing profits – not safety and security. But that changes once an incident occurs.

“The bad thing about that is that they end up being penny wise and pound foolish,” Villanueva said. “After working in this industry for 30 years, [I’ve seen] there’s no end to how much companies will spend once something happens.”

About Workplace Violence

Workplace violence encompasses a wide variety of scenarios, from verbal threats, to bullying, harassments and assaults, all the way to an active shooter situation. It can be internal or external and can occur at any level in the organization, from the CEO on down.

There are several core assumptions when it comes to workplace violence. One is that violence as a human behavior is a complex, multi determined phenomena. “We all have the potential of being violent,” Villanueva said. “Most of us are not, but some people are for a variety of reasons.”

Another is that a person who commits violence does not just snap. Villanueva likened it to a volcanic eruption. “It builds up over time and eventually it shoots up … people are exactly the same way,” he said. “There are signs you can look for to figure out if someone is on that path of violence.”

Among the signs are:

  • A past or present history of violent behavior
  • Changes in behavior, such as becoming angry, agitated, or confrontational
  • Behavior consistent with mental illness
  • Talk of suicide or harming oneself
  • Frequent mention of or a known obsession with weapons. “That in and of itself is not necessarily a problem because there are a lot of gun owners, hunters and gun collectors. That doesn’t make you a potential workplace violence attacker,” Villanueva said. “But when you combine that with some of the other [signs] then it could become a problem.,”

Workers prone to violence may also have a belief that they are being persecuted. They may tend to be ‘grievance collectors.’

“They go through life angry at life and always blaming people. They don’t take any personal responsibility,” Villanueva said. “If they get terminated, or something doesn’t go well at work, it’s not their fault; it’s always someone else’s fault, usually the company’s.”

Understanding the precursors to workplace violence is important in setting up a program to address the issue. Also key is to know what resources are available for assessment and management, something that should be done proactively.

“For example, it is very good to have a good relationship with the local police department because you might have to call them at some point,” Villanueva said. “To develop that relationship you really should go visit them whenever you can, not when you are in the middle of a crisis.”

Have a Plan

Spending some time, money and effort in preventing and figuring out how to best mitigate workplace violence is key, Villanueva said. There should be a written, living document that is updated frequently.

An effective workplace violence prevention plan should include policies and procedures, a threat management team and training. It need not be fancy or formal and should be understood by employees.

A threat management team is comprised of personnel from many different parts of the organization, such as HR, legal, operations, finance, and safety. “They all come together when there is a potential incident or a reported incident and they go through the evidence for the information and decide what to do next,” Villanueva explained. “The reason why you want everyone in the room is that the lawyer can say what is legal … the financial person can figure out how to get money for it, HR [will know] how to fire people and how benefits work. It can be informal or formal, there are all kinds of ways to do it. But you really need to have that level of control and support.”

Training should include sessions for all employees and another for managers and supervisors. All employees should be trained on workplace violence awareness – to understand what it is, how to spot it and how to report it.

“The other group of people to train separately are managers and supervisors because those are the ones to handle that complaint, that take that information and do something with it,” Villanueva said.