In the wake of recent tragedies such as the Northern Illinois University shooting, exploring the causes and effects of everyday violence may help to prevent similar acts, particularly in the workplace. In their article “Workplace Violence, Employer Liability, and Implications for Organizational Research,” faculty members Ramona Paetzold and Ricky W. Griffin of Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, along with Anne O’Leary-Kelly of the University of Arkansas provide insight on the relationship between employer liability and workplace violence.

According to the article, FBI statistics show that nearly one million people are victim to some form of work-related violence each year. From a business perspective, the time lost from victim recovery can cost employers as much as $55 million per year. By examining the basics of legal theory, the researchers attempt to create a dialogue about workplace violence and ways that employers may lessen the amount of these acts that continue to occur daily. With more understanding, supervisors may see a drop in their own liability.

“There are a lot of things we don’t know yet about workplace violence that will directly relate to when organizations may be held liable. We hope to answer some of these questions so that down the road organizations may be able to worry less about being liable for workplace violence,” said Paetzold.

In their paper, the researchers highlight the state negligence law and its relevance for violent acts on the job. According to Paetzold and colleagues, negligence can make supervisors directly liable for employee injuries. Under this theory, the employer is liable because its own negligence enables the perpetrator-employee to harm his coworker. To keep such claims from being made arbitrarily, however, the injured staff member must show evidence of harm.

“An employer breaches duty when he or she fails to take reasonable care to protect the employee under the circumstances,” say the scholars.

Paetzold, Griffin, and O’Leary-Kelly also examined workplace harassment, as it is often related to acts of violence. For harassment claims to be valid, employees must establish both that the act occurred and that the employer was responsible. According to the researchers, if a supervisor is responsible for the harassment and tangible job consequences occur, the employer is automatically liable.

Coworkers are just as likely to be the perpetrators of workplace sexual harassment, and in these cases, the victim-employee must be able to prove that the employer was aware of the harassment and failed to take action in order to hold the employer liable. Regardless of who is held responsible, maintaining safety involves awareness and cooperation from both the supervisor and the staff members.

“Having a clearly written anti-harassment policy with a viable complaint procedure can help to establish that the employer has exercised the needed reasonable care,” suggest the researchers.

“Ultimately, we need organizations to be better prepared so that they know how to handle potential problems when they arise and minimize acts of violence in the workplace,” said Paetzold.

The scholars also examined the relationship between workplace violence and the legal issues of Paetzold’s research specialty: mental disabilities and the workplace. Though the Americans with Disabilities Act provides opportunities for employees with disabilities, it sometimes makes the prevention of employer liability difficult. Concern about employing persons with mental disabilities is exaggerated, however, because of the well-known stereotype that people who suffer from a mental illness are more likely to become violent. Paetzold suggests that this stereotype is inaccurate, citing evidence that while there is a correlation between mental illness and acts of violence, it is no different from the relationship between violence and the general population.

“There can be less predictability in the behavior of someone with a mental illness, so they become an easy group to scapegoat. And if we think of ourselves as normal, it’s easy to say “well, we’re not like that’ and place the blame on someone who is different,” said Paetzold. She adds that this assumption was the chief cause for the attempt to pass new legislation regarding gun ownership after the Virginia Tech shootings, preventing the mentally ill from purchasing firearms. So the focus remains on the mentally ill, when in reality any person may be likely to resort to violent behavior, given a certain set of circumstances. Paetzold suggests that one source of power to cause and prevent acts of violence lies in the hands of the media.

“I think violence is on the rise now, especially at universities, because you get copy cat scenarios fueled by publicity. All of the media attention is attractive to certain people who are likely to engage in violence, especially if they are feeling alone. Many of these people feel lost, and this is a way for them to be found,” offers Paetzold. “At the same time,” she adds, “the media negatively stereotype the perpetrators as being mentally ill and fail to look for other explanations for the violence.” So what is the solution? According to Paetzold, as the media begins to present mental illness as something that can be treated like any other disease, the public can develop more of an understanding and lessen the stigma attached to mental disorders.

The complete research essay can be found in the December 2007 issue of the Journal of Management Inquiry, Vol. 16, No. 4.