“Finish that project by Friday. Or else.” If this is an empty bit of boss hyperbole, then it may simply spur an employee to meet the deadline. But if it's a sincere, believable threat of physical violence, it may be assault or a criminal threat and could result in an arrest, a civil lawsuit, and other repercussions. Assault in the workplace is a perennial problem but it can be prevented by employers and employees alike if they take the right steps before conflict escalates.
This article discusses workplace assault generally. Assault laws differ from state to state. For information about assault laws in a particular state, see the topic page on Assault & Battery Laws, and find your state under "assault and battery laws by state."
What Is Assault?
Assault, like all crimes, is defined by the law of the state in which it occurs. As typically defined, a person commits assault by intentionally inflicting or threatening to inflict physical injury on another person. For simple assault, the conduct need not result in an injury. An aggravated assault, as defined by state law, usually involves a deadly weapon, infliction of a serious physical injury, or a similar aggravating circumstance.
Assault in the Workplace
A workplace, like any environment where a number of people are grouped together (usually not by their own selection) in confined space every day, can become very tense. Throw in personality conflicts, power dynamics, and cultural differences, and you have a volatile mixture. However, workplace violence rarely erupts without any warning whatsoever. Tensions build and a series of behaviors often appear that reveal conflicts or vulnerabilities to outbursts.
A complicated workplace issue
Although mass shootings receive the bulk of media attention, the vast majority of incidents of workplace violence are simple assaults. (U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Workplace Violence," 1993-2009.)
In addition to actual assaults, workplace conduct that doesn’t quite rise to the legal definition of assault can lead to worker disruptions and even incite violence in response by other employees.
Employers and employees are well advised to develop strategies to prevent and address workplace conflicts and head off violence whenever possible, given that both risk liability.
Employer liability for workplace assaults
Where a person acting in the normal course and scope of the job assaults another employee, the victim employee can recover for the injury through the state workers’ compensation law. But, the employer can be held liable for injuries suffered by the victim if:
- the employer’s negligence contributed to the assault and injury (as where the employer knew that the assault was likely but took no steps to prevent it),
- the employer’s intentional conduct played a part in the assault and injury (as where the employer “sicced” one employee on another), or
- the employee is legally entitled to recover from a parent corporation because the immediate employer is not covered by workers’ compensation (such as in a franchise setting).
The first of these conditions bears special attention. An employer that tolerates non-violent but aggressive conduct that disrupts the workplace and makes other employees feel threatened may be responsible for violence that subsequently occurs. That violence may take the form of escalation by the aggressor employee or a reaction by the targeted employee. So, it's in an employer’s interest to prevent and address any bullying, yelling, aggression, emotional abuse, and other such conduct of which it is aware.
Where an employer has knowledge of behavior or tendencies that may result in violence, it may be liable to the victim in a civil lawsuit if the person in question later resorts to physical violence. Some workplace assaults are committed by non-employees, such as vendors, customers or clients, or even spouses of employees. Employers also may be liable for such violence when they had reason to know of the assailant’s tendencies but failed to take preventive measures (such as where a restraining order is in place but the employer fails to prevent the subject of the order from entering the premises).
Employers may also be liable for sexual assault (and sexual harassment) inflicted by supervisors and managers regardless of knowledge of the risk of such conduct.
Employee liability for committing assault
An employee who lashes out and assaults a co-worker or another person in the workplace may be exclusively liable for resulting injuries, particularly where:
- the employer had no reason to believe the employee would engage in violence,
- the assaultive conduct was not job-related, or
- the assaultive conduct was not tolerated or sanctioned by the employer.
An employee who assaults another person in the workplace may be charged with the crime of assault and also may be sued for financial damages in a civil action brought by the victim.
Violence Prevention Measures
Aggression, bullying, and other forms of acting out are disruptive in the workplace, may lead to violence, and need to be addressed. Employers have turned to various techniques for reducing the incidence of violence in the workplace, such as employee training, mediators, facilitators, team-building exercises, and the like. The FBI issued a bulletin in 2011 that provides statistical support for the effectiveness of early intervention to prevent workplace violence, and lays out some of the types of interventions that an employer can implement. These include:
- checking in with an employee who exhibits signs of agitation, distress, or anger
- setting up a reporting procedure for employees to use if they observe a co-worker whom they feel threatened by or fear may engage in violence
- third-party facilitation of group or individual discussions to try to resolve conflicts and defuse tense situations
- training of managers, supervisors, and rank-and-file employees to deal with situations where violence may occur, and
- for the most severe situations, emergency preparedness training of all employees in what steps to take in the event of a violent incident.
(From the FBI Bulletin, "Workplace Violence Prevention—Readiness and Response," January 2011.)
Help From a Lawyer
If you are an employer or employee who has experienced, or is concerned about, violence in the workplace, see a lawyer with experience in employment law in your state. Prevention is a great investment.