Can Verbal Abuse Be Considered Workplace Violence?
Verbal abuse doesn't end with the transition from the schoolyard into adulthood and work. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recognizes verbal abuse as a serious workplace issue and has regulations that include protection for workers who report it. Workers that are victims of verbal abuse at work don't have to take it, and cannot be fired for reporting it. If you're an employer, you need to get the facts, quickly.
In the FBI report "Workplace Violence - Issues in Response," the agency says that any conduct, whether physical or verbal, that someone could interpret "as an intent to cause harm" is workplace violence, and advises employers to establish "reasonably explicit standards" for supervisors and employers; according to the FBI report, these standards must "make clear to employees that no one has a right to make anyone else feel threatened."
As an employer, your policies should take a strong, proactive stance against bullying and verbal abuse, just as they should against against sexual harassment. If you become aware of verbal abuse in the workplace, whether it's by a supervisor or one employee subjecting another employee to abuse -- what amounts to bullying -- it's your responsibility to put a stop to it.
If you have an existing policy concerning workplace violence, including bullying and verbal harassment, ensure that your employees are aware of it. Post notices on employee bulletin boards, explain the policy in meetings with employees and, if necessary, send out individual memos that include the wording of the policy. If you don't have a policy, develop one. Ask your firm's attorney if his office has a workplace violence policy that it recommends; if so, ask for a copy.
Once you have a policy in place, enforce it. Employees who believe they've been abused can notify OSHA: according to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, you're responsible for providing you a safe place to work. Employees can file a complaint by telephone, email or fax, or online at the OSHA website. Employees can also ask for an OSHA inspection and speak with the inspector privately. If an employee notifies OSHA, it's handled as a complaint concerning any other safety issue.
If an employee calls in OSHA, your company can be cited by the OSHA inspector and can be fined. If the inspector gives you a deadline by which problems must be resolved, your employee can challenge the deadline. You can challenge the citation, the fine or the complaint, but you can't fire or discriminate against the employee for filing a complaint. This doesn't mean the employee is protected in other areas, such as job performance, but any complaints you have against the employee must be valid and be documented, or it could be perceived as retaliation for filing a complaint.