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Workplace Violence: What is “Risk of Violence” and what makes a hostile workplace? What can be done about it?

Stephen M. Raffle, M.D.

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By Stephen M. Raffle, M.D.

Violence or the threat of violence at the workplace cannot be ignored by an employer. A threat of violence can include bullying, harassment, threats, implied threats. Employers can do something about a potentially violent employee or employee at risk. The employer has a duty to maintain a safe workplace (which is anywhere the job is performed) for its other employees. If an employer identifies an employee at-risk for violent or threatening behavior, a proactive step is to request a threat assessment, also called a risk for violence assessment, by a qualified mental health professional, such as a Board Certified Forensic Psychiatrist with risk of violence assessment specialized training and experience, to provide medical/psychiatric opinion after conducting an assessment on the employee (related articles on this site below). Intervention and prevention can be an ideal outcome. Treatment for employees, return to work, ruling out what is what: the at-risk for violence employee and/or perception or misperception of threatening behavior by other employee(s).

A hostile work environment arises when a worker experiences from a co-worker physical threats, is the victim of violence, stalking, unwelcome sexual advances, humiliation, or other unspecified egregious behavior on the job. The effect of the experience must affect the employee’s psychological well-being and the way in which the employee works. If the employee does not experience the “hostile” acts as abusive, then the conduct has not actually altered the work environment and the workplace may not be considered hostile, i.e., no offense has occurred. Thus, a particular act may cause one person to experience a hostile workplace because a particular conduct has altered the work environment for that person whereas another person may remain unfazed.

“Behavior not incited or solicited” is an understatement if assault, threat of assault or violent behavior occurs. This is directly linked to attitudes and expectations by the aggrieved party and becomes part of the basis of my evaluation. If I am evaluating an employee for fitness for duty and he/she is said by others to have engaged in threatening, bullying, sexual touching, or other unwanted or unsolicited behavior, then I may have a person who is creating a potentially hostile work environment. (See also If the examinee denies the behavior, then I must examine him/her for underlying psychopathology to assess the level of reality he/she is operating in (reality testing). The person may feel justified in the behavior due to a belief the object of attention wants it, e.g. a sexual relationship. Also I must consider the idiosyncrasy of the person I’m examining, especially in civil litigation, but also in fitness for duty exams. For example, one person may claim a hostile work environment and harassment because a co-worker chews and cracks gum. Such hypersensitivity doesn’t create an abusive work environment. To determine “idiosyncrasy,” I try to apply a “reasonable person” test to the alleged wrongdoing and complaint.

One “take away” from all of these parameters and perspectives is that too often employers who seek a fitness-for-duty exam for an employee vis-a-vis the employee’s ability to work, fail to consider that his/her identified behavior may be creating a hostile work environment for co-workers or supervisors.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this website does not constitute legal or medical advice. Readers should consult with their own legal counsel or physician for the most current information and to obtain professional legal advice or medical advice before acting on any of the information presented.

© 2008-2016 Stephen M. Raffle, M.D. & Associates - www.rafflemd.com - Forensic Psychiatry