Workplace Violence and Remote Employees

Matthew Doherty


May 1, 2020

In addition to the innumerable impacts COVID-19 has had on individuals around the world, the virus has also ushered in a new wave of anxiety. Employees are worried about getting sick, taking care of loved ones, job stability and the prospect of unemployment. Past incidents have taught us that some perpetrators of workplace violence struggle with factors like financial setbacks, untreated mental health issues or domestic violence.

Even if your employees are working exclusively remotely or have been temporarily laid off, it is more important than ever that the organization have an effective workplace violence prevention program in place. These programs provide critical connective support when coworkers feel isolated and anxious, and offer recourse for employees who may be at risk or who need to report abuse. Whether workers are on-site or off, these programs can be effective in a digital environment.

Workplace Violence Risks During COVID-19

When some people think of workplace violence prevention programs, they imagine acts of violence and punitive zero tolerance policies. But a properly developed and effectively implemented program prioritizes prevention and creates an environment of trust, respect and courtesy, so when issues arise anywhere (including in the home) employees feel comfortable bringing them forward. As everyone struggles through this pandemic, it is critical to remind employees that, even in a remote environment, they can and should raise concerns about their well-being or the well-being of a coworker.

Among the millions of employees grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals who must shelter in place with violent partners, family members or other residents are especially vulnerable. Employers have a unique role to play when supporting their workers who may face violence in the home. When an employee’s domestic situation is volatile, the workplace can serve as a temporary shield from oppressive power dynamics that may involve emotional and physical abuse. Shelter-at-home orders and social isolation offer protection from a virus, but not from people in the home who are capable of inflicting emotional or physical violence.

Economic abuse can be an equally malicious aspect of domestic and intimate partner violence during this crisis. Many people experiencing violence are dependent on their partners or household members for financial support. Firings and furloughs may leave still more people in a vulnerable position or feeling trapped. Even if those experiencing violence could isolate elsewhere, they may need to stay to weather the pandemic and the associated economic difficulties.

Workplace violence prevention programs cannot and should not only protect employees as they face these situations, but also prevent a perpetrator from committing violent acts in their own or their victim’s workplace. Assailants often commit acts of domestic or intimate partner violence and go on to target the victim at their workplace. Sometimes, warning signs pointing to a risk of violence go unheeded.

How Employers Can address Violent Threats Remotely

Many of the resources used in workplace violence prevention programs are just as effective virtually as they are in a traditional workplace setting. If companies have not deployed online workplace violence prevention training, now may be an opportune time, particularly if workforce productivity is currently limited. Employees need to be reminded about the crucial role they play in workplace violence prevention. If they know their voices will be heard and action taken, coworkers can help protect their colleagues at work or at home. Consider the following steps:

1. Double down on online training. Take this opportunity to have the entire workforce complete online training on workplace violence prevention from home. Consider requiring completion within the next 30 to 45 days.

2. Emphasize accountability and responsibility for one another’s safety. Your training should stress that employees are the best line of defense in helping to identify the potential warning signs of concerning behaviors that have the potential to escalate. Remote workers are finding new ways to connect virtually with one another and build work-related relationships from home. If they believe a coworker is encountering threats or actual violence at home, they should know how to report this information and have confidence that it will be handled appropriately by professionals and experts.

3. Clarify that virtual channels can be used to convey important information. Early intervention is the key to preventing acts of workplace violence. Recognizing potential warning signs is not limited to physical interactions and observations. Video meetings and text-based conversations with a coworker can also be used to discern whether someone might be under duress. Establish a program for employees to report concerning behaviors anonymously, such as a company ethics and compliance hotline. 

4. Explain how to report information. Be sure your employees understand how to engage human resources, corporate security or whichever department leads your workplace violence prevention program.

5. Highlight the importance of reporting concerns even while working from home. Employees should not wait until this remote-work phase tapers off to report any concerns they have. They may be hesitant to bring their concerns forward due to fears about retaliation or skepticism about the program’s effectiveness. These barriers can be exacerbated in a remote working environment when they may not feel as threatened by potential warning signs or may not have ready access to people with whom they can speak in person.

6. Reinforce that protecting the workplace is about caring, not punishing. Explain that a workplace violence prevention program is not a punitive program and that you have resources, like employee assistance programs, for all employees, both on-site and remote. Violent incidents in the workplace are often predicated on life stressors such as debt, divorce, domestic abuse, substance abuse or untreated mental illness. These issues can be addressed by leveraging the professional expertise available through the employee assistance program.

Matthew Doherty is senior vice president and threat and violence risk management practice lead at Hillard Heintze, a Jensen Hughes company, and former U.S. Secret Service special agent in charge of the National Threat Assessment Center.