Will Smith Oscar Smack Highlights How Violence Erupts Unexpectedly and Anywhere - American Society of Employers - Michael Burns

EverythingPeople this week!

EverythingPeople gives valuable insight into the developments both inside and outside the HR position.

Latest Articles

Will Smith Oscar Smack Highlights How Violence Erupts Unexpectedly and Anywhere

By now most everyone has seen or heard that at the Oscar awards on March 27th actor Will Smith took offense at a joke made by Chris Rock about Smith’s wife. Smith proceeded to walk up on stage and slap (hard) Chris Rock and then yell at him to leave his wife out of his remarks (with expletives) after returning to his seat.

What does this have to do with HR or employment you ask? Well, it is an example of how violence can erupt unexpectedly and anywhere and that employers should be prepared no matter where and when for workplace altercations.

The act of physical assault is never expected at a corporate event or meeting. But for example, take simmering emotions by some co-workers over real or imagined slights by another, add a little alcohol, and nobody should be surprised that an incident of some sort has a good chance of occurring sometime and somewhere.

First lesson: Be Prepared for the Unexpected.

Employers need to anticipate the possibility of violence when planning larger corporate events. This starts with assuming, however low the probability, that some type of incident may occur. Should security be employed for the event? Who within the organization that will be in attendance at the event should be “in charge” to take command of the incident response team? If an incident arises who gets the communication, and who will make decisions on what is to be done right now?

CCH HR Answers Now reports the most common warning signs ahead of violence include:



Direct or indirect verbal threats, such as "Bad things are going to happen to my boss.";



Threatening actions, like a very menacing gesture to someone at the workplace;



Carrying a concealed weapon, flashing that weapon to test reactions, or generally having an extreme interest in weapons;



Paranoid behavior, such as perceiving that numerous coworkers and/or supervisors are conspiring against the employee;



Overstated moral righteousness;



Inability to take constructive criticism on job performance;



Expression of extreme depression and/or suicidal tendencies over recent family, financial, or personal problems;



History of violent behavior;



Fascination with and approval of workplace violence incidents;



Disregard for the safety of coworkers;



Being a loner and/or having an obsessive involvement with the job to the exclusion of other interests; and



A romantic obsession with someone in the workplace.


CCH advises everyone must watch for warning signs. Watching for these warning signs is not solely the responsibility of management or just something colleagues should look for in each other. It is up to everyone to help keep a workplace safe. The report recommends that "every manager and employee should be trained on how to spot warning signs, report concerns, and help prevent acts of violence in the workplace." 

Next Step: Find Out Exactly What Happened

So, an altercation occurs at a company event or during a normal workday. The altercation involves possible physical contact and most certainly some harsh words made in anger that rises to the level of assault. By the way, legal assault is defined as “the wrong act of causing someone to reasonably fear imminent harm.” Battery refers to the “actual wrong act of physically harming someone”. From what appeared to occur during the Oscar incident, it did not seem that Rock feared imminent harm. But he was definitely battered when the now infamous slap occurred.

Many companies these days have, in one form or another, a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to workplace violence. But experts advise when a violent altercation occurs, that before a decision to terminate employment is made, company managers should hear from all sides. Could there be any extenuating circumstances? In the case of the altercation at the Oscars, Smith’s wife has a medical condition that Rock’s joke poked fun at. Not cool. However, Rock may not have known Smith’s wife had a condition that resulted in what he used as the joke. Besides, didn’t everyone attending expect (hope) to be joked about by Rock or other presenters in that role? Add to that our cultural expectation of protection of one’s spouse and Smith’s reaction, though improper regardless, may impact the resulting disciplinary decision coming.

That said most employers would implement termination of employment for a punch in the face. But it makes sense to stop, investigate, and document before making a final call on the incident. This does not mean the parties to the altercation should be allowed back into the workplace while this follow-up investigation is occurring. But determining what happened is the prudent next step.

Next Step: Hopefully Before an Incident, But Definitely After an Incident

Training. In the face of aggression, being prepared for it can prevent a lot of subsequent damage. Think about front line customer service workers. An angry customer confronting a worker can quickly get out of hand. Training employees on deescalating a confrontation with effective training on how to handle a potentially violent customer in today’s world should be de regur.

General workplace violence training for managers should address the following:

  • Know what to do in case of an incident of violence;
  • Be able to recognize what violence is — even a threat, pushing, shoving, and harassing behavior is violence;
  • Know how to report an incident or call security; and
  • Find a safe place or evacuate the area.

CCH HR Answers Now suggests this about customer service training:

Customer workplace violence training should consider the following issues:

  • Failure to prepare and assist employees in dealing with abusive customers will not make the problem go away or mitigate damages.
  • Employees must have guidance and training to deal with conflict and how to defuse threatening situations.
  • Employees should be entitled to respect in the performance of their duties. For example, a customer who refuses the assistance of an African American sales associate, should be advised by the floor supervisor in a professional manner that the store does not condone discrimination in any manner.
  • Employees should have resources immediately available, such as panic buttons, in the event a situation escalates.
  • Use role-playing to rehearse methods to not react with anger to anger.
  • Never blame the victim for unprovoked assault.

Whether you’re responsible for just a corporate event or a national film award ceremony, plan accordingly for unexpected violence.



Definitions of Assault and Battery – Legal Information Institute. Cornell Law School website. Note: the definition of assault and battery can mean many different versions of causing harm and the definitions may change depending on the charge.

LAW 360 Employment Authority. 4 Takeaways From Will Smith’s Oscar Outburst (3/28/2022)

CCH HR Answers Now Library > Human Resources> HR Compliance Library>Safety, Security, Risk Management> Workplace Violence


Filter by Authors

Position your organization to THRIVE.

Become a Member Today