When Does Sexual Violence Become Workplace Violence?
The FBI defines a workplace threat as "[a]ny verbal or physical conduct that threatens property or personal safety or that reasonably could be interpreted as an intent to cause harm."1
Sexual violence becomes a workplace threat when anyone who comes in contact with the workplace engages in sexually harassing or criminal acts. Sexual violence can be committed by someone known or unknown to the victim: a family or a former dating partner, a co-worker, supervisor, security guard, customer/client, member of the public on company property, or a stranger. Crimes of sexual violence are defined differently in every state, but include rape, incest, sexual touching, threats, sexual harassment, assaults and battery.
Stalking is often a precursor to or co-occurs with sexual or domestic violence. A stalker can be known or unknown to the victim, and be a co-worker or client, a family member or intimate partner, an acquaintance or a stranger. The threat posed to the victim and the workplace will depend upon the perpetrator and their actions.
Addressing the workplace impact of sexual violence (and stalking) requires both prevention and response. Prevention includes creating an environment that is free from sexual harassment and violence, where potential perpetrators are deterred from such acts because they know there will be consequences. Response includes:
(1) addressing any threats or actual violence. Employers may be held liable for ignoring or failing to address potential or actual threats, but they should do so in consultation with the victim and in a manner that is mindful of the victim’s privacy and safety.
(2) promptly and respectfully responding to victims. Violence and threats to a victim can cause trauma that stays with the victim wherever she or he goes, including the workplace. Employers should conduct an investigation, provide such employees with access to appropriate services, and may be required to provide accommodations to employees who suffer injuries due to violence, whether or not they were suffered on the job.
(3) holding perpetrators accountable. Following an investigation, a workplace can discipline or terminate a perpetrator-employee or cancel contracts with vendors whose employees perpetrate such acts.
The following case studies illustrate how sexual violence and stalking impact the workplace:
Julie works as a sales associate at a popular clothing retailer. She returns to work after calling in sick for the last five days. She tells her supervisor that last week she went on a date with Alan, an older supervisor in the men’s department. At the end of the date he raped her at her apartment. When he left, he said “see you at work.” Julie is extremely distraught and upset. She is petrified to see Alan at work and does not want anyone to know. She came to work because she is afraid she will lose her job if she takes any more time off.
Question: Is there a threat of violence in Julie’s workplace?
Answer: Yes. Even though the violence occurred outside the workplace, Alan and Julie are co-workers in the same store. The risk to Julie and other co-workers of another assault is high. Sexual violence perpetrators often target persons over whom they have power, whom they believe will not report them, and if they do report, will not be believed. Having raped Julie already, Alan may be likely to do it again. Moreover, it may not be the first time Alan has sexually assaulted or harassed another employee. If Julie does report Alan and asks that the employer take formal action against him, Alan could become angry and retaliate against Julie or other persons.
If an employee reports sexual violence and/or harassment to the employer, the employer should consult the sexual violence and/or stalking policy (and collective bargaining agreement if applicable) and an attorney and take steps to address the situation immediately. These steps should include conducting an investigation, implementing a workplace safety plan with the victim, and instituting interim measures restricting the perpetrator’s work locations, duties and hours.
The employer should conduct an investigation regardless of whether the victim reports to law enforcement. If the victim does make a report to law enforcement, the employer need not wait until the perpetrator is tried or convicted to institute safety and disciplinary measures to keep the victim and co-workers safe.
Aida works at a major electronics chain store. She orders products from vendors and oversees product delivery at the store’s service entrance after hours when few employees are around. Frank, a deliveryman, told Aida she was “really hot” and has asked Aida out on a date several times. Each time she turned him down politely but firmly, and each time he became more aggressive and angry, accusing Aida of thinking she was “too good for him.” The last time Frank confronted Aida, he grabbed Aida’s arm, said she and her other store colleagues were “stuck up office **** who say no but mean yes, and that they would get what’s coming to them.” In the last week, Aida has noticed Frank repeatedly lingering by the service entrance after items were unloaded from his truck, watching her until she went back into the office. Aida told Lisa, her supervisor, about Frank’s comments and her suspicion that Frank is stalking her.
Question: Is there a threat of violence in Aida’s workplace?
Answer: Yes. Frank has already stalked Aida, made unwanted comments of a sexual nature to Aida, grabbed her arm and has included her co-workers in a possible threat to their safety. In light of his actions, Frank poses a risk to Aida and to others at the store. Employers have a duty to provide a safe workplace and to investigate threats immediately, including threats of physical or sexual violence. The employer should consult its workplace policies for guidance about proper responses to allegations of sexual harassment or violence, and initiate an investigation.
The employer should ask Aida if she would like to report the incidents to law enforcement. Regardless of her decision, the employer should conduct an investigation, safeguard Aida’s privacy and take specific steps to ensure the safety of Aida and her co-workers. The employer could contact Frank’s boss, request a new vendor for the store, or ban Frank from the store altogether.
Employers can take certain steps when both the victim and the perpetrator of workplace violence are employees of the same company or members of the same union; see the When the Perpetrator and Victim are Both Employees section below.
- U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2004). Workplace Violence: Issues in Response. Quantico, VA: Critical Incident Response Group, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, FBI Academy. Available at: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/workplace-violence