Workplace violence: 6 actions can help reduce organizational risk

The costs of workplace violence and harassment are high, both to the victims and to their employers. A Conference Board of Canada study identifies six actions that organizations can take to significantly reduce the human, financial and reputational costs of workplace violence and harassment incidents.

“The scope of workplace violence has broadened beyond extreme acts of physical violence to include psychologically harmful behaviours,” says Karla Thorpe, associate director, Compensation and Industrial Relations. “Addressing harassment is important for several reasons. Harassment incidents occur more frequently than acts of violence. Harassment often precedes violence, and serves as an early warning that violence can result if workplace issues are not addressed.”

Four provinces – Quebec, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario – now legally distinguish between workplace violence (physical actions) and workplace harassment (psychological harmful behaviours). Quebec and Ontario laws have legislated requirements for employers to prepare, post, implement and review written policies with respect to both workplace violence and workplace harassment.

The risk of workplace violence and harassment comes from individuals both within and outside the organization. They include:

  • Criminals: Individuals who target and enter workplace to commit a criminal act such as robbery;
  • Clients: Those who receive products or services from an organization, such as health care facility or a social services provider;
  • Coworkers: Fellow employees or former employees;
  • Individuals who have or had a relationship with an employee of the organization: these include a current or former spouse, relative, friend or acquaintance.

According to a 2004 report by Statistics Canada, incidents of violence are more likely to occur in social service, health care and educational settings than in other Canadian workplaces.

Employers can comply with recent legislative requirements and significantly reduce the risks by undertaking six key actions. Organizations should:

  1. Conduct periodic risk assessments;
  2. Heed early warning signs of potentially violent individuals and work situations-Management and employees at all levels of an organization must be able to spot the signs of potentially violent individuals and work situations;
  3. Make targeted use of professional assistance service options, such as employee assistance programs- These specialists identify and manage workplace violence and harassment, provide expert consultation services that identify risks, and suggest elimination or mitigation strategies;
  4. Have appropriate policies and resources to respond when needed- Workplace policies that include violence and harassment provisions should have in place clear expectations and consequences for individual conduct. Other options include regulating physical access to workplaces (such as “layered levels” of access in health-care settings) and redesigning jobs and schedules to ensure that individuals do not work alone;
  5. Review prevention and response plans continually; and
  6. Provide effective crisis leadership and response in the event of violence or harassment-Key actions include acknowledging the incident, communicating with both compassion and competence, and outlining the steps that are being taken to bring the organization back to normal and make it more resilient.  

The publication, Managing the Risks of Workplace Violence and Harassment, is based on research conducted by the Conference Board’s Council on Emergency Management and Council of Industrial Relations Executives.

For more about the report, or to order, visit, or if you have an account with the board, visit