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This Massachusetts Human Resources Manual is offered to you for free. Find state specific laws and regulations below.

Workplace violence — Massachusetts


Employers are increasingly concerned about workplace violence issues in the wake of recent high profile incidents. Workplace violence causes many problems for employers, among other issues:

  • loss of productivity
  • potential liability
  • poor worker morale.

This topic presents strategies for employers to minimize incidents of workplace violence.

Guidelines to minimize violence in the workplace

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency of the federal government responsible for regulating workplace safety and health, has not issued any regulations to specifically address workplace violence. However, the agency recognizes workplace violence as a hazard, and it has issued guidelines to reduce workplace violence. OSHA may rely on these guidelines to issue citations to employers for incidents of workplace violence. 

OSHA issued the following guidelines to minimize violence in the workplace:

  • Management commitment and employee involvement - OSHA recommends a team-oriented approach. It proposes that management representatives and employees work in committees to identify and minimize risks of violence in the workplace. These committees should identify security concerns, report incidents of violence, and recognize escalating situations. In addition, OSHA recommends debriefing and medical/psychological counseling for employees involved in violent incidents. OSHA further recommends that employers create a comprehensive written program to address workplace violence. The program should include a zero-tolerance policy for violence and threats, a no-retaliation policy, a procedure for reporting and documenting incidents, and a security procedure.
  • Worksite analysis - OSHA recommends that employers undertake a thorough analysis of the risks of violence in the work. Employers should analyze prior incidents of violence, contact other employers within the industry, survey employees, and conduct physical inspections of the premises. When an employer conducts this type of analysis, it must take corrective measures if it uncovers any hazards. An employer may expose itself to liability if it discovers workplace hazards, and fails to remedy the situation.
  • Hazard prevention and control - When an employer identifies a hazard, OSHA suggests that it implement mechanisms to prevent harm to its employees. The employer should implement mechanisms to eliminate the harm identified. In addition, employers may want to consider the installation of alarms and other security devices, as well as administrative procedures for responding to incidents. Employers may also want to create procedures for investigation and discipline of workplace incidents.
  • Safety and health training - OSHA recommends that employers educate workers about the risks of workplace violence and the specific policies and procedures in place to minimize those risks.
  • Recordkeeping - An employer should maintain records to document any incidents of workplace violence. It should also document its efforts to comply with violence reduction programs.

Several groups have urged OSHA to create specific regulations to address workplace violence.  OSHA may issue these regulations in the near future.

Legal issues arising from workplace violence

An employer should be aware of the legal claims that may arise from workplace violence. An employee may bring a claim against its employer based on:

  • respondent superior
  • negligent hiring
  • supervision or retention
  • workers' compensation
  • the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • state privacy laws.

Respondent superior

Under the theory of respondent superior, employers may be liable for the actions of their employees when their employees’ act within the scope of their employment. In other words, when an employee commits a violent act because his or her position requires a level of risk, the employer may be held liable the act. For instance, if an employer provides an employee with a weapon as part of his or her duties, and the employee improperly uses that weapon in the course of employment, the employer may be subject to liability.

Negligent, hiring, supervision, or retention

Employers may be liable for the negligent hiring, supervision or retention of an employee who has a tendency to be violent. When an employer knows (or should have known) of an employee's tendency to commit violent acts, but employed the individual despite its knowledge, the employer exposes itself to this type of claim.

Workers' compensation

When a violent worker injures another worker, the injured worker is generally entitled to workers’ compensation benefits under Massachusetts law. When an injury is compensable under workers’ compensation law, the employee may not sue the employer under any other legal theory for the incident. However, an employee is typically not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits when he or she causes or instigates the violence.

Testing and the Americans with Disabilities Act

When an employer hires an employee, it may not subject the employee to any psychological testing for violent tendencies because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits this type of testing. Before basing an employment decision on an employee’s status as a threat, the employer should be mindful that the ADA requires proof that the employee is a direct threat. This showing may be difficult if an employer bases its decision on unsupported assumptions about the employee.

Privacy laws

Privacy laws may limit employers from obtaining information related to whether an employee or potential employee poses a risk of workplace violence. For instance, pre-employment psychological testing or background checks may trigger issues related to an individual’s right to privacy.

Preventive actions to deter workplace violence

Prudent employers take preventive action to deter workplace violence before it happens. Prior to hiring, employers should adequately review potential employees for violent propensities to the extent permissible under the ADA and relevant privacy laws. After hiring, the employer should continue to monitor employees for violent propensities. In addition, employers should educate all employees and supervisors on the risks of workplace violence, the employer’s policies and procedures relating to workplace violence, and techniques to avoid or de-escalate violent situations. Employers should also implement and enforce a zero-tolerance policy with respect to workplace violence.