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Q: One of our employees has threatened to commit suicide. What should we do?
A: Comments about suicide should always be taken seriously. If an employee appears to be planning to take action and the employer knows where the individual is at the time, it is best to contact 911 or other local emergency authorities immediately. Employers usually are not qualified to handle such a situation directly and should refrain from giving advice or trying to counsel the employee. They can, however, contact local services such as an employee assistance program, suicide hotline or hospital if they have doubts as to whether there is an immediate threat or not. Given the risks of failing to take action, however, it is best to get help sooner rather than later.
The employer should also resist the urge to force the employee to take time off or to require fitness-for-duty certification in response to remarks involving suicide. That is more likely to make a bad situation worse. Though it’s possible the employee has a condition that would fall under the coverage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the employer should refrain from making such assumptions and instead should focus on the situation at hand.
If the threat becomes known through second-hand information the employer may need to discreetly investigate the circumstances before taking any action. Though unlikely, it’s possible the comment was a casual remark, made in poor taste, in reaction to excessive work-related demands that can be addressed between the employee and the supervisor. Assure the person who provided the information that the employee’s safety is more important than maintaining confidentiality. Where it is not possible to obtain confirmation it is better to seek professional intervention through one of the sources suggested above than to delay action.
For more information, check the following web pages:
Crisis centers in your area.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is Operations Manager for SHRM’s HR Knowledge Center
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