Terri Howard, FEI Senior Director

Recently I was called by an organization to address an incident of workplace violence reported by
an employee.

The employee reported that she was verbally threatened by a co-worker. Upon further investigation, the employee stated that, while working on a project together, her co-worker was demeaning, spoke loudly and told her “there would be hell to pay if she didn’t finish the project.” By most definitions, these actions squarely fall into potential workplace violence behavior.

As we began to review policy to determine disciplinary outcomes, it was clear we had run into a snag.  The organization’s policy simply read that the company had a zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence and employees would be disciplined for all behaviors. What did this mean? Furthermore, when the co-worker was questioned, she merely said, “I didn’t know talking loudly and motivating my team was workplace violence.”

This is when organizations must revisit zero-tolerance. The reality is that people who go to work may not have a clear understanding of how to behave in the workplace. There are no courses in high school or college that teach one how to behave with civility, communicate effectively with co-workers or even define acceptable workplace behavior. 

A more robust zero-tolerance policy around workplace violence includes specific behaviors that are appropriate and not appropriate within the organization. These vary from organization to organization.  For example, what might be appropriate on a construction worksite may be inappropriate for an
office setting.

In addition to clearly defining behaviors, a workplace violence policy should also give examples so that employees have a thorough understanding of expectations. This leaves little wiggle room for misperceptions or miscommunication. Finally, a well-defined list of consequences is helpful for employees to understand the significance of violating the policy.

A zero-tolerance workplace violence policy is only great when it is clear, concise and employees receive ongoing training. It’s also a crucial piece to successful business continuity. If your organization hasn’t reviewed its zero-tolerance policies—or lacks a robust workplace violence policy in general—it’s time to reach out to the experts for guidance and support.