American workplaces can be violent environments. Clerks and bartenders get robbed. Patients attack nurses, EMTs, and doctors. About 2 million workers per year report being victims of violent crime at their job, and more than 20,000 people miss work time because of it.
Spurred by the flood of sexual assault allegations in 2017, the #MeToo movement publicized numerous cases of high-profile men who attacked female subordinates at work yet faced little to no repercussions, while their victims’ well-being and careers suffered. “Is this just true for famous, powerful men like the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, or is this true in general?” asked Emily Nix, former Institute visiting scholar and assistant professor at the University of Southern California. “Take a nondescript office and a manager who assaults his female subordinate. Does he have few repercussions? Does she have lots of repercussions, and what happens to the firm? That just hasn’t been studied.”
Until now. Nix is a co-author with Abi Adams-Prassl, Kristiina Huttunen, and Ning Zhang of an Institute working paper that documents, for the first time, the harm that workplace violence causes and how gender interactions shape who suffers these consequences.
Nix and her co-authors set out to measure how violence between co-workers changes employment rates and earnings of both perpetrators and victims. This is no easy task. The team not only needed data on where people worked, they also needed information on which co-worker attacked another and when. Very few countries gather such sensitive information.
Workplace violence immediately, seriously, and persistently harms everyone involved.
Fortunately, however, Finland does. Nix and her co-authors assembled one-of-a-kind data on labor market trajectories for workers involved in more than 5,200 violent incidents with a co-worker between 2006 and 2019. They then looked at how employment changed for workers involved in a reported attack compared with similar workers who were not.
Their evidence shows that reported workplace violence immediately, seriously, and persistently harms everyone involved. Employment rates of both perpetrators and victims fell significantly in the first year after one co-worker attacked another. After five years, both groups were about 9 percentage points less likely than comparison workers to be working at all. That is a large cost. A layoff—one of the biggest shocks a worker can experience—only reduces employment for Finnish workers by about 4 percentage points over the same time frame. Violence hurts—beyond the physical and emotional cost, there is an economic cost as well.
Violence and gender
Digging into the details, however, reveals stark differences in what workplace violence looks like for men versus women and who bears the larger cost. For example, about as many women as men are victims of workplace violence, but men commit most of the violence. When men attack women, the victims tend to be relatively young, earn low wages, and have a lower rank than them. When men attack other men, the victims tend to be co-workers who are similar to them. Women are also more likely than men to be the victims of serious crimes such as assault and menace—crimes that carry prison terms.
Most striking, though, are the ways in which the gender of the attacker and the victim skew the labor market consequences of workplace violence. The figure below illustrates that when men attack women, their employment rates fall by half as much as when they attack men (5.5 versus 11 percentage points), even though attacks against women are, on average, more serious. On the other hand, female victims are about twice as likely as male victims to be out of work (4 versus 8 percentage points).
Asymmetry in employment impacts of workplace violence
Note: Each bar in the figure plots the change in employment rates five years after an incident of workplace violence compared to the change in employment rates over the same period for similar workers who were not involved in an incident. The lines are 95-percent confidence intervals.
Source: Adams-Prassl, Huttunen, Nix, and Zhang, “Violence Against Women at Work
So, why are the consequences for male perpetrators so much smaller when their victim is a female colleague? One reason stems from the power differentials. Subordinates attacked by their managers have lower employment rates than victims attacked by co-workers of similar rank. At the same time, managers who are perpetrators of workplace violence suffer smaller employment setbacks than perpetrators who attack co-workers of similar rank. Since women are more likely than men to be attacked by managers, “it seems like this position of power is key in explaining that asymmetry,” said Nix.
Why firms matter
One clear lesson from the paper is that how a firm chooses to handle a violent incident matters, and different firms and managers handle these incidents in very different ways.
Since women are more likely than men to be attacked by managers, “it seems like this position of power is key in explaining that asymmetry.”
For example, whether a manager dismisses a perpetrator following a violent incident is an important choice, both for the perpetrator and for the victim’s outlook about the firm. Co-workers might not want to work alongside perpetrators, and victims could face retaliation for reporting the attack. The paper finds evidence suggesting that male managers are more reluctant than female managers to fire perpetrators. Perpetrators who had a female manager have lower employment rates after the incident than perpetrators who had a male manager, and female managers help firms retain female employees after a violent incident.
And the choices that female managers make matter beyond just perpetrators and victims. Firing perpetrators should deter violence in the future and reassure existing employees about workplace safety. Given the strong gender differences in the consequences of violence, one measure of the firmwide effects of violence is the share of women working at a given firm. In male-managed firms, male attacks on female co-workers lead to an immediate reduction in the share of female employees, but in female-managed firms there is no change.
Power-based violence and gender-based consequences likely impact women at work throughout the labor market.
These results describe a world where firms have the power to reduce the consequences of workplace violence for victims—they can penalize perpetrators by firing them—yet they aren’t doing it enough. Women are disproportionately paying the costs.
In fact, the fallout from violent incidents may result in broader employment patterns in which female workers choose certain firms rather than others to avoid potentially violent working conditions. In this case, violence may lead to much larger consequences than the employment setbacks documented here if it limits the firms or positions to which women feel safe applying. As Nix notes, adding these costs up “could play a non-trivial role in explaining some part of the gender income gap.”
Preventing gender-based violence at work
The unpleasant reality is that power-based violence and gender-based consequences likely impact women throughout the labor market. This is “something we need to deal with if we’re going to have better functioning labor markets that are more inclusive,” Nix said. Any steps to reduce the incidence of violence or its negative effects, therefore, could have far-reaching benefits. In 2022, the Biden administration enacted two new laws to curb sexual assault and harassment in the workplace: the Speak Out Act and the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act. Both bills are aimed at empowering victims to report workplace sexual violence and pursue charges against perpetrators, which may help improve women’s working conditions in the United States.