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Workplace violence hits home: are you ready?


The primary subject matter of this case concerns human resource management, workplace violence, and organizational politics. The case can be used to explore the intricacies of developing a HR workplace violence policy and getting that policy adopted by upper administration. Students are asked to develop a written workplace violence prevention policy. Developing such a policy requires them to research the elements which should be included in such a policy, to develop a plan of action to implement the workplace violence policy, to identify the critical issues of risk/liability to the company's officials, management's responsibility and legal liability for maintaining a safe work environment, and how to get senior management to "buy off" on the plan. The case has a difficulty level of three. The case can be presented and discussed in two to four class periods depending on the number of issues considered. Students can be expected to spend about 10 hours of outside preparation to be fully prepared to complete the case.


Digital Logistics Systems (DLS), as is true of many companies, never considered the possibility of workplace violence. However, a near fist fight in the Advertising/Promotions department brought the issue firmly to the attention of Tom Ross, the department manager. By chance, the incident was overheard by Sarah Davis, the HR manager. Ross and Davis meet over the issue, where it is agreed that Ross will handle the disciplinary action for the employees while Davis will develop a workplace violence prevention plan. Davis recognizes that not only will she need to develop the plan, and develop a program to implement it, perhaps her biggest task will be in convincing upper management of the necessity of adopting the plan.


"That was unbelievable" Tom Ross muttered to himself as he collapsed into his office chair. Ross is the Advertising/Promotions Department manager of a regional branch of Digital Logistics Systems (DLS), an information technology company. It is 5:45 p.m. and Tom had just returned to his office following a volatile department meeting that had left him both physically and emotionally exhausted.

As he reflected on what had just transpired, Tom thought that emotions at the meeting had reached a boiling point, as tempers steadily increased between two ten year employees. Peter was arguing a position that Edgar responded to with "that is ridiculous." Peter, whose temper and accompanying bad mood had been steadily increasing for the last two weeks as he brooded over his not getting a promotion that he thought that he deserved, especially since he was the one who had orchestrated Harold's leaving to open up the position. So, when the argumentative statement was made, Peter could no longer control his bottled up emotions and launched into a tirade of accusations, recounting his 30 years of experience, demanding that Edgar apologize for calling him ridiculous. Edgar was unwilling to do so, declaring that he had said "that is ridiculous" not "you are ridiculous." As tempers continued to flair, before any of the other 12 individuals in the room could fully appreciate what was happening, Peter and Edgar were standing face to face yelling at each other. Peter started shoving Edgar, saying with his military training, he could snap Edgar in half. Edgar responded that this was not a bar, and that Peter should behave in a professional manner. It appeared to Tom that Peter wanted to move beyond the shoves into actual blows, but was restraining himself. Since it was not clear how long Peter would continue with self restrain, Tom knew it was time to act, so got between the two employees. Most of the others had left the room as Ann had declared, "I guess that the meeting is over." Tom was able to get the two separated and to go back to their respective offices, as with so few there, Ann was correct the meeting was over.

Tom, as well as the other observers, was stunned by the events which had just occurred. He knew that Pleasantville, a town of 25,000 was always perceived as a safe city, a place where some still didn't lock the doors to their houses. The thought of work place violence was never considered as a possibility of something which might occur here. As Tom reflected, he remembered that he would shake his head at news reports of workers who had gone "postal" in the actions by workers. In fact, he remembered that he had had that same reaction only this morning as he was reading in the newspaper the report of the financially strapped Atlanta auto dealer who fatally shot two of his workers because they had asked for a raise (AP, 8-1-07). However, he also remembered feeling that such acts would occur someplace else. He NEVER imagined that such actions could take place in Pleasantville.

Given the new reality of the possibility of workplace violence at Digital Logistics Systems, Tom turned to his computer to get some information. He was astonished when a Google search for the term "workplace violence" returned 2,670,000 entries. Clicking on one of the early links, he was taken to a 2004 USA Today article (Armour, 2004, July, 19) which reported "In an average week in U.S. workplaces, one employee is killed and at least 25 are seriously injured in violent assaults by current or former co-workers." This first line of the article astounded Tom. While he remembered hearing reports of shootings at various worksites, where a fired employee was seeking revenge, or a depressed ex-lover would hunt down his former lover, he had no idea that such incidents were so common. Yet another click took him to a website which contained a bibliography on the prevention of workplace violence which listed well over 100 articles on the topic (Evans & Zarda, 2008). Tom was stunned at the amount of information about the topic and at the list of resources dedicated to the prevention of workplace violence.

After looking at a number of other websites, Tom turned from his computer in order to sit and contemplate. After a few moments of quiet reflection, it became clear to Tom that the quaint little town of Pleasantville was no longer the idyllic place that he had convinced himself that it was. The reality was that if a near fist fight could occur here, then certainly there was the potential for even graver events occurring. Tom knew that he needed to act but was uncertain as to what to do. Just then he noticed that his voice mail light was blinking. The message was from Sarah Davis, head of the HR department, who wanted to see Tom the first thing in the morning to discuss the incident. It seems that Sarah had been leaving the building when she just happened to walk by the open door of the conference room as the commotion was taking place. The message left Tom with mixed feelings. On one hand he knew that he could rely on Sarah's sound professional judgment to provide him with guidance while at the same time he was feeling some apprehension about a possible perception that he was not able to handle his department.

What Tom didn't realize was that Sarah was just as apprehensive about the meeting. Sarah knew that some action had to be taken regarding the employee's behavior. But she also realized that she had to walk a thin line between preempting Tom's authority over his department while at the same time fulfilling her duties as the HR manager.

The meeting the next morning began by Sarah describing to Tom the situation as she saw it. She told Tom that as the conference room was on her way from her office to the parking lot, she had just happened to hear the dispute that was taking place. She assured Tom that she was not "spying" on him, it was just a chance happening that she had heard what was going on. That being said, Sarah said that there were two issues on the table: 1) what to do about the employee's and their inappropriate workplace behavior, and 2, on a broader level, the need to develop a workplace behavior / violence prevention policy. Tom was nervously shaking his head in agreement as Sarah made these two points. Sarah continued, in her view, the issue of the specific behavior of the employees was Tom's responsibility, while developing and securing the approval of a policy was her responsibility. Tom, feeling relieved that the department was still seen as his responsibility, was still unclear as to what should be done about the employees, but voiced his agreement with Sarah. He also expressed his appreciation for her professional attitude. Sarah, in responding, sensing Tom's uncertainty about what action to take regarding the employees, suggested that while she felt that Tom should deal with the issue, that at a minimum, there should be a formal disciplinary letter added to both employee's files stating that such behavior was not acceptable and that any future occurrences of such behavior would result in more serious disciplinary action. Tom agreed and again thanked Sarah for her suggestion. Sarah said that she might need to call on Tom in her efforts to get the policy adopted.

Sarah knew that her principle tasks would be in determining:

1. How to develop a work place violence prevention plan? What would such a plan look like and could it actually prevent violence from occurring?

2. How do I convince upper administration to adopt a workplace violence prevention policy?

3. How do I develop a plan of action for implementation of a workplace violence prevention policy?

Sarah knew that her superiors held the same naive view that she, until a few hours ago shared, workplace violence is something which occurs elsewhere, not in Pleasantville and CERTAINLY not at DLS. Sarah knew that it would take considerable persuasion to convince her bosses that a plan needed to be developed. In considering the prospects of building her argument, Sarah went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website for information. There she found information about the types of workplaces which experienced workplace violence and the effects of such violence on issues which could affect the company's bottom line.

Sarah also felt that she could bolster her argument by looking into the company's legal responsibility with respect to workplace violence. She would need to determine whether any legal liability falls upon the company officials i.e., senior management.

Sarah knew that she faced a significant amount of work to not only craft a workplace violence prevention policy, but also to convince senior management of its importance to the company. As she reflected on the week's events, she could not help but feel somewhat sad that things would never be the same in the company or in the small town of Pleasantville.

Carrol Haggard, Fort Hays State University

Patricia LaPoint, McMurry University
Table 1: Percent of establishments experiencing an incident of
workplace violence by type of incident and selected industry, 2005

Industry                            Total          Type of Incident
                                                 Criminal   Customer or

Service Providing                 5,933,800        2.4          2.3
Retail Trade                      1,000,900        5.3          2.6
Transportation & Warehousing       200,010         1.5          1.0
Utilities                           15,880         2.1          4.1
Information                        132,400         2.6          3.1
Finance & Insurance                444,980         1.1          2.2
Real estate                        339,660         1.3          1.4
Leisure & hospitality              666,410         5.9          4.4
Accommodation & food services      554,320         6.9          4.8

Industry                          Type of Incident

                                Co-worker   Domestic

Service Providing                  2.1        0.9
Retail Trade                       2.3        2.0
Transportation & Warehousing       3.6        0.8
Utilities                          8.4        1.0
Information                        5.3        2.9
Finance & Insurance                2.1        1.3
Real estate                        0.4        0.4
Leisure & hospitality              4.1        1.2
Accommodation & food services      4.6        1.3

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005

Table 2: Percent of establishments of employees who have been affected
by workplace violence by type of effect for selected industries, 2005

Industry                   Total                 Type of Effect
                    establishments with
                      an incident of
                    workplace violence

                                           Absenteeism      Health

Service Providing         305,020              7.8            3.3
Transportation             8,800               13.6           Na
Utilities                  1,870               9.6            Na
Information                8,230               1.2            Na
Finance &                 19,260               1.2            Na
Real estate                8,460               6.0            Na
Leisure &                 54,840               1.7            Na
Accommodation &           50,530               1.8            Na
food services

Industry                            Type of Effect

                    Turnover   Fear levels   Productivity   Morale

Service Providing     5.7         22.2           8.2         19.8
Transportation        12.2        31.8           2.8         15.7
Utilities              Na         60.4           17.1        16.6
Information            .4          5.1           28.1        30.0
Finance &              .2         20.9           1.5         4.8
Real estate           8.5          7.1           6.4         7.6
Leisure &             4.8         15.0           8.3         24.1
Accommodation &       5.0         15.0           8.9         25.1
food services

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005
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Title Annotation:CASES
Author:Haggard, Carrol; LaPoint, Patricia
Publication:Journal of the International Academy for Case Studies
Article Type:Case study
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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