The 4 Types of Workplace Violence

Employee incidents involving criminal outsiders, clients, co-workers and significant others have different characteristics.

The 4 Types of Workplace Violence

Workplace violence is an important and often misunderstood subject. Broadly defined, it concerns any act of violence in which a company employee is involved. Planning efforts must focus on preventing, reporting, surviving and responding to these incidents. Doing this requires the broad topic to be broken down into its separate and distinct categories. Each of these categories will have its own unique set of risks and countermeasures. Effective planning will require a separate evaluation and plan for each category.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) divides workplace violence into three categories:

  1. An employee involved with a criminal outsider (e.g. robbery)
  2. An employee involved with a client (e.g. customer, student, patient)
  3. An employee involved with a co-worker

Calif.,OSHA worked with a group of researchers to separate and define an important fourth category:

4. An employee involved with a spouse or other significant relationship

Among these categories, type-3, worker vs. co-worker, gets the most press and is most often identified and confused with the broader topic. When a past employee “goes postal,” few would mistake this for anything other than workplace violence.

It is important to know that type-1, worker vs. criminal outsider and type 4, worker vs. significant other, account for most of the workplace violence and deaths. In a tight economy, casualties from all four categories are likely to increase.

Planning requires an organization to look at each aspect of their organization to analyze their potential for risk. Risks will vary widely with each organization.

Type 1: Employee vs. Criminal Outsider

This type of workplace violence is most likely to occur in areas that have direct public contact along with available cash or other items of high value. A convenience store will be more vulnerable to type-1 violence than a factory.

The analysis should include area crime rates and the experiences of other organizations with similar workplace settings. Countermeasures will include a broad range of crime prevention measures including Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), barriers, cash management techniques and electronic systems, including video surveillance systems and public view monitors. Many of these measures can make customers feel safer.

Type 2: Employee vs. Client

This type of workplace violence will be most prevalent in organizations that deal with large client populations. Hospitals, schools and universities all fall directly into this risk category.

Risk will be highest in locations where high stress or strong emotions may be common. In hospitals, for example, emergency room and psychiatric intake areas will face greater risk than other hospital areas. Risk reduction will focus on methods that reduce tension. Listening and de-escalation techniques should be taught to all staff members. Developing effective customer service teams and programs will also help.

Customer focused teams have the added benefit of reducing the potential for type-3 workplace violence. Along with prevention plans, organizations must also develop plans for reacting and surviving type-2 events. These should be coordinated with local police agencies.

Type 3: Employee vs. Employee

This type of workplace violence tends to be highest in organizations with large employee populations, particularly in areas where employees work closely together under stressful conditions. Preventing type-3 violence begins with hiring the right people and treating them well. Harsh management styles can increase the likelihood of these incidents. Layoffs, terminations and disciplinary actions may also increase the risk of violence. Emphasis on listening to employee concerns and developing management and supervisory de-escalation skills can help.

Employees will be less prone to act out when they believe that the company is really concerned with their welfare. It is also important to know that persons can change their disposition for a variety of reasons. It is vital to develop communication opportunities where employees feel comfortable enough to report bullying, anger and other problematic behavior of co-workers. The company must also have quick access to resources for evaluating the seriousness of problems that are observed or reported.  Assessing risk is critical to the development of a workable response plan.  Reaction and survival plans will also be an important part of type-3.

Type 4: Worker vs. Significant Other

This type of workplace violence is often the greatest threat to female employees. It is most likely to occur in organizations with large female populations, particularly in areas that can be easily accessed by outsiders.

It can also be one of the hardest to deal with since the symptoms of impending violence can be difficult to detect. Training and communication are the keys to developing a successful worker vs. significant other prevention programs. Companies must develop low-risk alternative communication links where employees can report potential threats faced by themselves or their co-workers. This requires a robust training program to help ensure that all employees are aware of their options. Having in-house or outside resources to evaluate threat potential is important for developing an effective defense strategy. Specific plans to protect at-risk employees should be worked out in cooperation with local police agencies.

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About the Author


Jim Grayson is a senior security consultant. His career spans more than 35 years in law enforcement and security consulting. He worked for UCLA on a workplace violence study involving hospitals, schools and small retail environments and consulted with NIOSH on a retail violence prevention study.Grayson’s diverse project experience includes schools, universities, hospitals, municipal buildings, high-rise structures and downtown revitalization projects. He holds a degree in criminal justice and a CPP security management credential from ASIS. He is a nationally recognized speaker and trainer on a wide range of security topics.He can be reached at Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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