SUMMARY: Tips for refining or creating effective and enforceable policies to prevent violence in the workplace. These strategies can help you develop and communicate policies for leaders and employees.

Violent, threatening or harassing behaviour should never be acceptable in the workplace. It should not be dependent on whether an employee has a mental health issue. Having effective and enforceable policies in place can be a first step to preventing violence in workplaces.

Understand the issue

  • Consult your legal advisor if you suspect that mental illness is a factor in violent or aggressive behaviour before engaging in disciplinary action. Ensure you are in compliance with applicable human rights legislation.
  • Studies have shown that people living with mental health conditions are no more likely to engage in violent behaviour than the general population. Experiences of discrimination and violence can result in psychological distress and feelings of low self-esteem, as well as anxiety and depression. (Reprinted from Canadian Mental Health Association, 2011, Violence and Mental Health; Unpacking a Complex Issue, a discussion paper.) For these reasons, violence, threats of violence, harassment and acts of aggression in the workplace should be responded to swiftly and effectively.
  • Unaddressed conflict among co-workers may contribute to unhealthy and potentially dangerous workplaces.
  • Unaddressed harassment has been a primary factor for violence in some workplaces.
  • Issues should be resolved promptly, seeking assistance from outside resources where necessary.
  • Previous violent or aggressive behaviour is the best predictor of violent or aggressive behaviour.
  • Domestic violence is also an issue that may become workplace violence or harassment when it occurs or spills over into the workplace. Often, employers do not see domestic violence as a workplace hazard. but it negatively affects the victim, co-workers and the organization. Below you'll find information to assist your organization and leaders to prevent and address domestic violence while also supporting employees who may be victims.

Develop a policy

  • Define acts of violence, including threats of violent action against personnel and company property.
  • Employers, in some jurisdictions, are also required to “take every reasonable precaution” to protect workers against domestic violence.
  • Declare that the organization will not tolerate violent or aggressive behaviour.
  • Describe disciplinary action that will be taken for offenders, in strict terms.
  • Ask employees not to intervene but to call their manager or 911.
  • Ensure the policy outlines what employees are to do in extreme situations, e.g. gun wielding, hostage taking, etc.
  • Refer to your Code of Conduct where appropriate and as it applies to the policy.
  • Assess your organization for common areas of risk associated with workplace violence, including:
    • previous violent or aggressive behaviour
    • recurring instances of bullying or harassment
    • unresolved or recurring conflict
  • Ensure the policy clearly outlines:
    • The process for responding to acts of violence or reporting an incident of violence.
    • How to complete an incident report.
    • How to notify the person being accused.
    • The process for conflict resolution.
    • The employees' responsibilities during an investigation.
    • How the duty to accommodate will be applied throughout the process if any employee involved may be experiencing a mental illness.
    • How both parties will be supported to deal with the stress of the incident investigation such as EAP or counselling.
    • How the reputation and privacy of both parties will be protected.
    • Details of how the outcome of an investigation will be communicated and addressed.
    • The interim measures that will address concerns such as competing interests, public safety, the health and safety of other employees, and the reputation of the organization.
  • Have the policy reviewed by legal counsel and senior leaders

Communicate the policy

  • Announce and communicate highlights of the policy to all employees, including senior leaders.
  • Have the appropriate company officer distribute a copy of the policy to all managers and supervisors with instructions about what is expected of them in carrying out the policy.
  • Have all employees acknowledge in writing or by e-mail that they have received and read the policy.
  • Post the policy prominently in a place where all employees will see it and have regular access to it, and promptly post any amendments to the policy.
  • Ensure all new employees receive a copy of the policy when hired.
  • Ask managers to schedule an annual discussion about this policy with their staff.

Develop processes and procedures

  • Develop and implement procedures for reporting all incidents of violence including recurring incidents of bullying and harassment in the workplace.
    Make sure employees know:
    • What to do and who to talk to when threatened by violence in the workplace.
    • That, if the organization chooses, the process of reporting will allow for the use of a personal advocate for either parties. People experiencing mental health issues often don't have the stamina to engage in this process on their own.
    • How to initiate a complaint. 
    • The procedures to resolve a complaint. 
    • How the employee reporting will be protected. 
    • What will be expected of them in an investigation.
  • Develop and implement procedures for investigating, following up and recording incidents involving violence.
  • Ensure investigation procedures clearly set out the processes that will be followed, including:
    • Who will conduct the investigation.
    • How the complaint will be investigated.
    • The rights of involved parties to representation.
    • An approximate timeline.
    • A mechanism for appealing a decision.
  • Annually review the policy and processes to ensure they continue to meet workplace needs and concerns.

Develop organizational strategies

  • Take steps to prevent or minimize the risk of workplace violence by developing a psychologically healthy workplace for employees focused on:
    • Resolving workplace issues.
    • Improving the quality of performance feedback.
    • Ensuring all employees are treated fairly and reasonably.
    • Communicating openly at all levels.
    • Increasing management accountability by setting goals.
  • Consider facilitating the free Psychologically Safe Interactions workshop to help increase awareness of how workplace behaviours may be interpreted as bullying, even when that wasn't the intention.
  • Ensure that the organization's direction for workplace safety is reflected and highlighted into corporate and service-specific goals.
  • Ensure a timely response to disruptive and violent behaviour.
  • Conduct ongoing risk assessments for workplace violence. Violence Assessment provides some sample questions.
  • Advocate for action to prevent workplace violence at the system level, working with:

    Governments

    • Advocate for legislation that demands violence-free workplaces with zero tolerance for verbal, physical, emotional or sexual violence, if it does not already exist in your jurisdiction.
    • Review inquest reports regarding workplace violence to learn from the recommendations made.
    • Call on and offer to work with governments in developing and implementing multi-sector strategies that involve the collaboration of workplaces, the community and government.

    Research experts

    • Partner with experts in workplace violence to help increase knowledge about workplace and occupational-specific violence that may be affecting your workplace.

    Accreditation bodies

    • Encourage your organization's affiliated accreditation bodies to develop and adopt standards about workplace violence.

    Professional, union and regulatory bodies

    • Work with your organization's professional, union and regulatory bodies, where appropriate, to ensure consistent messaging about workplace safety.
    • Collaboratively review and respond to the efforts of other organizations and workplaces to minimize workplace violence and enhance workplace safety.

Provide training to leaders and managers

  • Provide training to managers on the organization's violence prevention policy and procedures, and ensure that managers have the skills to recognize and deal with violent behaviour.
  • Integrate violence prevention into leadership development and education programs.
  • Provide all managers with conflict resolution training that specifically considers mental health concerns.
  • Have managers collaborate with team members to develop team/departmental practices, policies and expectations related to respectful behaviour.
  • Have managers be aware of and work with team members to prevent behaviours that can foster anger, mistrust, insecurity or violence. This can include activities such as gossiping, bullying, socially isolating others, pushing, yelling, or throwing things. 

Educate employees

  • Provide information and education to staff about the impact of violence in the workplace, and on life and relationships.
  • Ensure that everyone in your workplace, including consultants, apprentices and students have the opportunity to learn how to respond to workplace violence and keep themselves safe.
  • Ensure adherence to workplace health and safety standards.
  • Ensure employees know how to follow organizational processes that require mandatory reporting of potential workplace violence activities.
  • Educate employees on how to support colleagues who may be experiencing violence and encouraging those colleagues to come forward.
  • Have employees contribute to the development of organizational processes that aim to eliminate workplace violence and increase workplace health and safety.

Workplace Strategies for Mental Health produced a series of videos to help address stigma related to employing people with serious mental illness. 

David Williams talks about his experiences as an employer, dispelling fears about employee violence when serious mental illness is a factor.

Domestic violence

Some provinces have enacted laws that make it mandatory for employers to protect employees who are at risk of domestic violence.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) shares that domestic violence is a pattern of behaviour used by one person to gain power and control over another with whom they have or have had an intimate relationship. It can include many forms of physically or psychologically violent behaviours. There are additional dimensions to violence in a domestic relationship that are unique, such as:

  • Using property, pets or children to threaten and intimidate
  • Economic abuse, such as withholding or stealing money, stopping a partner from reporting to work, or from getting or keeping a job
  • Sexual, spiritual or emotional abuse.

People experiencing domestic violence often feel isolated. They may feel ashamed or have concerns that their situation will compromise their employment, so they may be afraid to say anything. Similarly, those who suspect an employee may be a victim of domestic violence are afraid to approach this subject or intervene for many reasons. This further isolation increases the risk to those who experience domestic violence. Domestic violence could impact the workplace in the following ways:

  • Reduced productivity and motivation
  • Decreased worker morale
  • Potential harm to employees, co-workers and/or clients
  • Increased replacement, recruitment and training costs if victims are dismissed for poor performance or absenteeism
  • Strained co-worker relations

ORGANIZATIONAL STRATEGIES

CCOHS suggests as part of an overall workplace violence prevention policy, employers can take responsibility to:

Identify warning signs: Because people who experience domestic violence can be more likely to report it to a co-worker than to others in the workplace, all employees could be trained to recognize the warning signs and risk factors for domestic violence. The University of Western Ontario Centre for Research on Violence Against Women & Children offers some helpful information on Domestic Violence Warning Signs for the Workplace.

Establish a support network: Various people can offer support and assistance to employees experiencing domestic violence. Working together in a team, which may include the supervisor, trusted co-worker, human resources, Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider and union representatives, may be a helpful approach to providing a supportive network.

Develop a safety plan: Workplaces can create individualized and workplace safety plans to address the situation of the worker and other employees. Plans can be reviewed and updated as circumstances change. After speaking to the employee and ensuring confidentiality, share the plans with anyone who needs to know about the situation in order to ensure safety. You can establish a safety plan by working with the employee to:

  • Establish a restraining or protection order, and help them make sure all the conditions of that order are followed
  • Identify possible solutions. Follow up and check on how the solutions are working for them
  • Share a recent photo or description of the abuser. Alert others, such as security and reception, so they are aware of whom to look for
  • Relocate their work station so that they cannot be seen through windows or from the outside
  • Not include their contact information in publicly available company directories or website
  • Change their work phone number, have another person screen their calls or block the abuser's calls/emails
  • Pre-program 911 on a phone or cell phone. Install a panic button in their work area or provide personal alarms
  • Provide a well-lit parking spot near the building, or escort the individual to their car or to public transit
  • Offer flexible work scheduling if it can be helpful
  • Call the police if the abuser exhibits criminal activity, such as stalking or unauthorized electronic monitoring
  • Ensure that the victim and abuser are not scheduled to work at the same time or come into contact if both are employees, clients, customers, patients, vendors or suppliers within the organization.
  • Establish disciplinary procedures to hold the abuser accountable for unacceptable behaviour in the workplace if they work at the same organization

Adapted from: Making It Our Business (2014) from the Centre for Research & Education on Violence against Women & Children

SUPPORTING THE EMPLOYEE

Starting a conversation about family violence with an employee can be difficult. Your role as an employer or supervisor is not to be a counsellor, but rather to approach the employee in a professional, sensitive manner, and find out what help is required and where the employee can find it.

When an employee tells you about abuse, it can help to make a strong statement of support such as, “No one deserves to be abused,” rather than showing shock or dismay. When talking with an employee, your role is primarily to:

  • Provide initial support
  • Refer the employee to available resources in the community or to an employee assistance program

When addressing the issue of family violence with an employee, ensure that you:

  • Offer to meet in a private and confidential environment
  • Clearly identify any job performance problems you have observed (e.g.: “I notice that you are having difficulty meeting your deadlines and you don't seem quite yourself. Is there anything I can do to help?”)
  • Express empathy that personal issues can interfere with work performance
  • Refrain from referring to abusers exclusively as “he”; family violence victims and offenders can be of any gender
  • Use respectful language, such as calling a person by their name or referring to the nature of the relationship such as “your partner,” “your spouse,” or “your friend”; avoid using labels such as “abuser” or “batterer”
  • Avoid accusing, diagnosing or drawing conclusions about the situation
  • Listen to what the employee has to say and support them to seek help
  • Offer company and community resources, such as employee assistance plan information or contact information for family violence prevention services and crisis line numbers
  • Develop a plan to help the employee maintain job performance and a strategy to implement it
  • Recommend that the employee speak to a trained counsellor who can help develop a plan to deal with the issues; resources may include an employee assistance plan or crisis line counsellors and other domestic abuse prevention professionals in the community
  • Help the employee determine if the abuser's behaviour may put others in the workplace at risk
  • Work with the employee to keep other staff safe without breaching confidentiality if it appears that they might be in danger.

Adapted from: Safe@Work coalition (https://safeatworkcoalition.org/familyviolence)

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

The following are links to resources related to domestic violence that may be of assistance.