Conflict at work is usually inevitable. With the pressures of work and mix of different personalities all in one place, disagreements can arise between employees and from customers.
When conflict escalates into workplace violence such as through bullying, harassment, or physical violence, both employee and customer safety can be in jeopardy and the risk of harm is significant.
This guide discusses the health and safety implications of workplace violence, and we share techniques for managing violence and aggression at work.
What is workplace violence?
Workplace violence is defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as, ‘Any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work.’
As well as physical attacks, violence in the workplace includes verbal abuse, threats, harassment and bullying. When serious conflicts arise from colleagues or customers, the risk of harm to your employees is significant.
There were 688,000 incidents of violence at work in 2019/20 according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) for the year ended March 2020, with 43% of incidents classified as assault. Assaults on employees can cause a wide range of injuries, with the majority of assaults resulting in severe bruising.
An estimated 60% of workplace violence offenders were strangers to the victim, such as a retail customer or passenger on public transport. Among the 40% of incidents where the offender was known, the HSE study Violence At Work Statistics 2020 found that offenders were most likely to be clients or a member of the public known through work.
If conflict is not identified and managed in the early stages it can sometimes escalate into violent, abusive behaviour.
Workplace violence can:
- Be psychological, physical or sexual.
- Be between workplace colleagues or members of the public such as clients, customers, students, and patients.
- Range from minor cases such as disrespect to criminal offences such as actual bodily harm.
- Range from single, one-off incidents to more sustained, systematic patterns of violent behaviour.
Violence and conflict at work – what does the law say?
A safe working environment is essential to an organisation’s success and employers have a legal duty to keep their employees safe. There are several key pieces of legislation that employers must follow in order to create a safe working environment for employees:
- Health and Safety at Work Act 1974– sets out the main legislation for employers to ensure the health and safety of employees and visitors to the workplace, including contractors, freelancers, suppliers, and the public.
- Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 – requires employers to assess risks to employees, including from physical violence, and to put in place plans to control or eliminate these risks.
- Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR)– requires employers to notify their enforcing authority of any incident of non-consensual physical violence done to a person in the workplace.
- Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 and The Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 – requires employers to consult with and inform employees on all relevant health and safety matters.
While there is legislation in place to protect employees, a strategy for handling conflict and violence in the workplace is crucial. There are various techniques for conflict management but whatever approach you take, it is important that you have procedures and conflict management training in place for dealing with incidents.
How to protect employees from workplace violence
There many different approaches for managing violence and conflict at work. Here are some examples of ways organisations can control the risk.
1. Assess the risk
Examine any potential circumstances that might give rise to violence and conflict at work, identifying how and why this may happen and the steps to minimise, prevent and control risks.
Risks may include situations where employees are working alone or at a client’s premises, or when employees travel to and from their place of work outside normal working hours, such as when working overtime.
Identify procedures such as increasing security by recording people entering or leaving work premises to prevent unauthorised access to a workplace. Where incidents of violence by third parties is more likely, such as in the transport, retail, health, hospitality and leisure sectors, CCTV for monitoring incidents should be in place.
You should develop a clear action plan based on the risk assessment, and ensure you regularly review the plan and reassess risks.
2. Involve employees
Consult with your workforce as part of any risk assessment and get employees’ views on the actions required to control risk.
Employees should feel they have a say in how policies are developed, and that managers and business owners are listening to their views and experiences, especially when dealing with third parties.
3. Promote a safe culture
Strong and effective relationships between employers and employees are key to managing workplace conflicts.
Adopting effective conflict management techniques and encouraging a positive working environment where employees know they can openly share any concerns with their manager or team leader will keep incidents of conflict low.
4. Communicate policies and procedures
You should have clear policies and procedures to communicate how your organisation manages violence and conflict in the workplace. This demonstrates that your organisation takes workplace violence seriously by acting immediately and taking firm action which may involve the police. Policies should set clear expectations as to what constitutes unacceptable behaviour.
All employees must be able to access policies and procedures, and you should communicate how they are implemented, monitored and reviewed.
Policies should be backed up with easy-to-understand grievance procedures so that employees can raise concerns.
5. Actively communicate
There’s little point in having policies in place without employees being aware of them. Actively communicate a zero-tolerance approach to violence in the workplace, for example by using public-facing signage detailing the steps your organisation will take if employees are verbally or physically abused at work.
Provide employees with details on how to report conflict at work, how they can access conflict management training, and the support available to them to help prevent and manage violence.
6. Provide support
Organisations should actively support their workforce in the event of workplace violence. This includes advice on reporting, recording and investigating incidents, such as using the organisation’s accident and incident reporting system.
Support should be extended to helping an employee return to work, including a risk assessment of their working environment.
Further support, such as free access for employees to victim support helplines, is often offered to employees in larger organisations.
7. Provide conflict management training
Managers and team leaders should be aware of how to manage conflict among the employees they are responsible for, and employees who have direct contact with customers should know strategies to de-escalate situations, and what to do if they face abuse or assault.
Foster a safer workplace with our IOSH Approved Conflict Management online course. Employees will gain the knowledge to spot the early signs of conflict at work helping them to diffuse or avoid violence. They will learn how to evaluate risk, risk reduction strategies, effective personal safety tactics, and how to report incidents.