Avoid Violent Terminations with a Show of Respect

By Roy Maurer Aug 26, 2011
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Terminations and layoffs are the leading causes of workplace violence committed by employees, according to Johnny Lee, director of Peace at Work, an agency dedicated to violence prevention in the workplace.

Being respectful of the terminated employee betters the chances that the employee will walk away without engaging in retaliatory behavior, Lee said.

Terminating an employee is a difficult and uncomfortable experience. Some common mistakes managers make can turn a bad situation worse, Lee said during a webcast. Managers might deny problems with the employee, in order to avoid confrontation, or not be honest with the employee during performance evaluations or the termination process.

Managers should not give favorable ratings to poor performers, Lee said. Confronting employees about concerns, whether related to job performance or behaviors, will give them a chance to be more emotionally prepared if and when you have to terminate. Being fired unexpectedly, especially after receiving favorable performance appraisals, is more likely to lead to a sense of betrayal and unfairness. Feeling betrayed can exacerbate some employees’ violent tendencies.

Another mistake managers make is acting too hastily, Lee said. “The belief that ‘if we can just terminate the individual and get him or her out the door, our problems would be over’ is not only incorrect but can have deadly consequences. The most dangerous time in these high-risk cases will be after the termination.”

Although most separations go smoothly, any termination can go wrong. It is wise to review your outplacement practices and conduct a preliminary threat assessment to ensure safety, Lee said.

“For many people, losing a job is traumatic,” he said. “The moment of separation can be a crisis. If it’s handled well, everything can go smoothly. But if it’s handled poorly, anything can happen.”

Be Prepared

Lee recommended that managers prepare security measures prior to the termination meeting. For example:

  • Plan the separation meeting for the morning, on a weekday and not before a holiday, allowing the terminated employee a chance to begin finding new work.
  • Limit the employee’s access to IT (e-mail, server, administrator rights) before the meeting.
  • Watch for the employee’s arrival, looking for anything suspicious.

For high-risk individuals, managers should consider hiring on-site security, holding the meeting off-site, terminating by letter and using surveillance, Lee advised.

Setting Up the Meeting

Lee recommended the following actions to increase the likelihood of a safe termination:

  • Hold the meeting in a safe location, such as in a room near an exit, a room with more than one exit or a room with a clear path to exits.
  • Hold the meeting in a room with windows so observers can see in.
  • Dress professionally, in respect of the occasion.
  • Make sure the room is clear of potential weapons, including staplers, letter openers and scissors.
  • Hold the meeting with two or three people present in addition to the employee, a threat management team of individuals who are trained in the process and knowledgeable about the available resources and protocol. “This is a difficult process for even a well-trained individual to handle alone,” Lee said. A threat assessment team can include members of HR, management, legal or security. “But don’t use the group to intimidate,” Lee said.
  • Make accessible an unseen panic button or wireless bell, and use it if necessary.
  • Have a response plan ready.

Delivering the Message

In delivering the message, management should be brief and to the point, providing clear reasoning for the termination, Lee said.

Provide managers with a written script spelling out exactly what to say and what to avoid. Keep the meeting brief, about 10 to 15 minutes. The less said the better.

“The termination meeting is not the time for negotiation, but do let them share their voice,” he said.

Emphasize respect during the meeting, stating the company’s position without using slander, humiliation or criticism. Do not engage in argument. Allow the departing employee to save face and maintain self-esteem by acknowledging their strengths and contributions.

Explain what the company policy is regarding references. Let them know what you will say to a prospective employer. “It is in your best interest that they get another job,” Lee said.

Be clear about your policies regarding their return to the office, collecting personal items, communicating with other employees, and use of trespass orders or workplace restraining orders.

You can offer benefits and severance pay to take the edge off the situation, Lee advised, including:

  • Continued health benefits, and not just COBRA benefits.
  • Access to the company employee assistance program and other support and outplacement services.
  • A generous severance package. Usually, companies provide one month of pay for the first year of service and one or two weeks of pay for each additional year of service thereafter. Keep severance consistent companywide.

What to Look for During the Meeting

An important element of the threat assessment process is knowing what to look for during interactions with the separating employee. Obviously, take note of threats made toward management, whether direct or veiled. “Clarify the threat if you feel safe; leave if you don’t,” Lee said. “If you hear, ‘I’m going to get even’ or ‘You’ll be sorry,’ take the comments seriously and report them to the appropriate person. Additional tips:

  • Resist the urge to return threats. Instead, offer support. Disarm anger by listening and showing empathy.
  • Be on the lookout for employees not accepting fault, blaming others, expressing a sense of injustice or complaining about conspiracies. Note fatalistic statements, hopelessness and despair. *Be aware of situational risk factors, such as mental health, substance abuse, family or relationship troubles, and preoccupation with weapons.

The Exodus

As part of the separated employee’s exodus following the termination meeting, management should take the following steps to ensure safety while allowing the employee to keep his or her dignity:

  • Close IT access to prevent sabotage and theft.
  • Take back company materials, keys, access cards and the like. Change the access codes or locks.
  • If possible, allow the employee to say goodbye to colleagues and to clean out personal space, desk or locker.
  • “Do not do the walk of shame,” Lee said, referring to the practice of having security personnel escort the separated employee through the office while they collect their personal items.
  • Watch them as they go to their car. It is possible that they have weapons in their vehicle.
  • Lastly, don’t kill job offers with bad references. “You want them to get new jobs and move on,” Lee said.

“The overall lesson: People commit workplace violence for revenge, justice or control. Don’t give them the excuse they’re looking for,” Lee said.

Any termination process with a high-risk individual should be designed to reach a complete separation, in which there is no opportunity to reinforce a relationship with the company. Any follow-up interactions should be accomplished through designated channels, the company’s agents or resources that the company has arranged, Lee advised.

Roy Maurer is a staff writer for SHRM.

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