Establishing Occupational Violence and Aggression as a Strategic Risk

by Joe Saunders

In management theory, it is generally accepted there are three levels of decision making – operational, tactical, and strategic. Operational decisions are typically made by low-to- mid level supervisors and managers, and are expected to have minor, short-term impact on the company. Tactical decisions are generally made by mid-to-upper management, and are concerned with implemented strategic vision on a changing field of play. Strategic decisions are the purview of the board of directors and executive leadership team. These are the long-term, high-impact decisions that significantly impact all other areas of the business.

If risk management is truly just the act of enhanced decision making, then it’s reasonable to say that strategic risks are those that have long-term impact across all areas of the business. Indeed, the way a company manages its strategic risks is one of the key factors in determining its worth.

Having spent the majority of my working life immersed in the study and practise of managing aggression and violence in the workplace, I am convinced that occupational violence and aggression is not only mistreated as a purely operational risk, but should indeed be considered a strategic risk in every sense of the word.

Research conducted by the Australian Security Research Centre provided the following insightful observations for this discussion:

  • There is no doubt a legal duty of care exists to protect staff from occupational violence and aggression
  • Exposure to occupational violence and aggression has impacts upon morale and performance, staff retention, and the emotional wellbeing of all employees
  • Violence and aggression can cause reputational damage and hurt the wider brand of the organisation if not managed appropriately

In these three points alone, we are drawn to consider legal ramifications for breaching duty of care, human resources impact and associated decline in customer service, and damage to brand integrity. These are undeniably strategic risks which can have immense impact across all areas of the business.

So, what does this actually mean for how we manage the risk? Applying the lens of strategic risk management to occupational violence and aggression provides three key insights.

  1. Risk owners, being the PCBU (personal conducting a business or undertaking) must be fully briefed on their obligations, responsibilities and liabilities in managing the risk of violence and aggression in circumstances relating to their company’s operations. This includes executive leadership and the board of directors.
  2. True subject matter experts must be consulted either internally or externally for the management of this risk. Occupational violence and aggression presents challenges outside of the traditional domain of work health and safety or physical security.
  3. management level position with responsibility for occupational violence and aggression, along with a steering committee to support them, must be implemented.

We can no longer plead ignorance or claim we were ‘doing our best’. We must move beyond the simplistic, operational risk mitigations of signage, security guards and duress buttons and embrace a truly integrated, strategic risk management approach incorporating both proactive and reactive controls. But first, we must get serious about the risk exposure occupational violence and aggression presents and begin having these conversations at the appropriate level.