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Management Tools: Employees in Crisis

HR Magazine, May 2003Dealing with Employees in Crisis

Use this blueprint for proactive management intervention.

Much has been written about preventing violence and enhancing workplace safety. The hardest—but most essential—part of that prevention is dealing with employee crises on a proactive basis. In other words, managers need to recognize and handle suspicious behavior before it turns violent. What should you do when you notice an employee isolating himself from the rest of the group? How do you deal with an employee who states that he’s feeling suicidal? And what if your “suicidal” employee seems to go a step further and becomes potentially “homicidal”?

True, these extreme behavioral reactions don’t occur every day in the workplace. Still, most human resource practitioners and managers will have seen more than their share of employees in crisis, and managers should know that there is a methodology for addressing an employee crisis proactively.

Invite the Isolated Employee Back

Workers vulnerable to irrational acts typically appear as loners. These people often develop a “time clock” mentality where they go through the motions of doing their jobs day in day out but are otherwise disengaged. Extending a helping hand to those who have extricated themselves from the social group over a number of years is a daunting task. Many managers will simply take the path of least resistance and avoid the “oddball” employee whenever possible.

However, left in a vacuum void of information and two-way communication, these “foxholers” tend to create their own versions of reality. Generally speaking, such individuals may tend to demonstrate an “entitlement mentality with victim syndrome” combination that makes it very hard for them to accept help. As such, they may justify their anger by attributing negative intentions to others’ actions where none exist. What these loners may need is an opportunity to reconnect to the group and enjoy the social elements of work—recognition and appreciation for a job well done as well as a sense that they belong and can make a positive difference in the workplace.

This is no easy task, especially if you’re the new supervisor. However, your lack of history or “emotional baggage” with a new staff may be used to your advantage as you take a fresh look at the situation. For example, let’s assume you’re a newly hired hospital administrator responsible for overseeing a staff of a half-dozen nurses in a particular wing of your hospital. Five of the six nurses get along well with each other; they engage in healthy banter, cover for each other when one goes on break and answer other patients’ call lights should the primary nurse be engaged elsewhere on the hospital floor.

One member of the team, however, holds out stubbornly in terms of engaging with the others. You learn that she’s been employed the longest, she used to be known as one of the nicest nurses on staff but has long since given up on trying to make others like her, and she seems to find fault with most people around her. As a result, there is little communication between the two sides. There are no exchanges of hellos or goodbyes, and the environment is at best strained whenever forced interaction occurs. Worse, patient care suffers as patients’ call lights go unanswered whenever this particular nurse is on shift.

Your first step will always be to meet with your staff members one-on-one to learn how they view the situation. Ask questions like these:

  • How would you grade our group in terms of camaraderie and teamwork?
  • How do staff members get along with each other, and have you had any particular problems with other members of the group?
  • Are you aware of any particular historical problems among the team members, and could you tell me how they were or weren’t resolved?
  • Did anyone “disengage” after any particular incidents or otherwise appear to be isolated or abandoned from the group?
  • What would you recommend we do to better the situation?

Finally, ask each nurse to support you if you attempt to bring peace to both sides of this rift and to welcome that particular nurse back into the fold.

More likely than not, you will hear fairly consistent stories and explanations of the ongoing strife with each employee, and you will probably see both sides of the story objectively and have a better understanding of how the fallout came to be. With each individual’s commitment to do her part in bettering the situation, it will then be time to hold a group meeting.

The group meeting might open like this:

“Life is too short. We spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our family members, and there’s certainly more than enough work to go around. What could make this unbearable for all of us, though, is the negative environment that we create because of a lack of communication, harbored unresolved resentments, or a perceived lack of respect in terms of how we’re treating others.

“You know that I’ve met individually with each of you to learn about this historic rift, and I want you to know that I’m holding each of you accountable for creating a work environment where everyone is treated with respect and dignity. I’m also holding you fully responsible for your own ‘perception management,’ meaning it’s not about right or wrong; it’s about ensuring that others understand your good intentions and are made to feel welcome in our department.

“I realize that this situation may have taken years to get to this point, and I’m not naive—it may take just as many years to get to a point where there’s a natural trust and respect in your interactions. But people tend to respond in kind, and if you treat others respectfully, they’ll do the same to you. I’m here to ensure that that’s the case, and I’ll be here for each of you should you need me. Please understand, though, that I won’t stand for missed patient call lights or any attempts at placing blame on others. I also won’t have any members of my staff feeling singled out or otherwise isolated from the rest of the group. In short, if the current situation keeps up, there will be disciplinary consequences. On the other hand, if you support me in making this a more inclusive working environment, then we could all begin to let bygones be bygones and discover new ways of adding value to our hospital’s patient care system. Can I count on your individual and group support?”

Allowing people to feel safe about coming out of their foxholes will do more than anything else to avert potential crisis in the workplace.

The EAP Tool

What if the individual nurse in this case continues to feel even more isolated from the group or begins demonstrating signs of psychological trauma? What happens, for instance, if this individual reports to your office one morning saying that she’s feeling suicidal? Employee assistance programs (EAP) are there to help. Assuming your company offers this benefit, it may make sense to tell the employee:

“Kristine, I want you to wait here with me in my office. Let’s call our EAP together, because I’m not your best resource if you’re feeling that way, and I know that Marilyn Jones at the EAP would certainly help. Will you wait here with me and let me help?”

Note: Making a “formal” referral to an EAP (as opposed to a “voluntary” referral where the employee self-refers) should almost always occur with the employee’s consent. However, in extreme cases where a formal referral may be warranted, you must ensure that the employee has a job performance problem in addition to appearing to be depressed, suicidal or potentially hostile. In the case of formal referrals, you would discuss your perceptions of the work performance problems with the intake counselor on the front end (although not necessarily in front of the employee). With a signed release from the employee, the EAP would later be able to provide you with limited feedback about the individual’s attendance, compliance and prognosis.

In certain cases (for example, with potential workplace violence issues), you have the option of not permitting the individual back to work without a fitness for duty certificate from a licensed health care practitioner. Note that such leaves are typically paid through the initial period of evaluation. Beyond that, employees typically use accrued time off to be compensated while receiving further treatment.

ADA Limitations and Caveats

One caveat about “formal” EAP referrals: Although they may certainly be justified in cases of threats of employee suicide, recent case law shows that formal EAP referrals have created burdens on employers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, plaintiff attorneys have argued, on the basis of a mandatory EAP referral, that the employer did indeed perceive that their client was disabled. (The ADA and some state disability discrimination laws protect individuals who either have or are perceived to have a disability, including a mental disability.) Such an interpretation could become legally problematic should you then decide to take some adverse action (especially termination) against the employee.

In addition, “you shouldn’t mandate that an employee attend treatment sessions by threatening termination for not doing so” cautions Frank Melton, labor and employment litigation partner with Rintala, Smoot, Jaenicke & Rees LLP, in Los Angeles. “Such a requirement could appear to make an EAP referral an extension of your disciplinary authority and give rise to claims of disability discrimination based on a perceived mental disability, invasion of privacy or misuse of confidential medical information in certain states,” according to Melton.

Put Safety First

Of course, an extreme worker reaction might also result in veiled threats of homicide rather than suicide. For example, what if an employee came to your office one morning, placed a live shell of ammunition on your desk, and stated that her co-workers better not bother her today “if they know what is good for them”? Pretty creepy, to be sure, but veiled threats like these are not uncommon in extreme cases.

Your first reaction probably would be to fire this person and ensure that she has no further access to company property. And that may be the best decision for your organization in the end. Still, it’s probably best to make a record that you didn’t overreact or jump to unfair conclusions. In such cases, placing the employee on a paid administrative leave might make the most sense. Explain your rationale to the employee this way:

“Kristine, I know you met with our EAP provider, and they gave us a written release for you to return to work. You also told me that you were feeling much better about work and about your relationship with your peers at that time. However, the feelings that you’re sharing with me right now raise some concern, as I’m sure you could understand, and I think it’s best to send you home with pay while I check with my superiors in terms of how to best handle this. We’ll call it an ‘administrative leave’ and continue to pay you as though you were working full time. I’ll call you tomorrow at home.

“The way that our company normally handles these things is to ask the employee to go straight home. I can’t have the employee here at work while I do my objective fact-finding. Having the employee wait at home is always part of an administrative leave. Is that reasonable to you, and will you support my request with that?”

Gently escort the employee off the premises and alert security, or take other reasonable steps to ensure your workers’ safety.

Most employment lawyers will recommend that you share with the potential victims that a threat, whether overt or veiled, was indeed made and the steps the company is taking to address the situation. “However,” according to Melton, “in order to protect the individual’s privacy and to avoid later claims of defamation, you should limit disclosure of specifics only to those individuals with a need to know.”

Bring these newfound threats to the attention of the EAP, and at this point, be sure to seek the advice of qualified legal counsel before moving to terminate. If you then choose to dismiss, do so over the phone within 24 to 48 hours. Ship the employee’s personal belongings plus final checks via courier to her home. Include a letter that states that she may no longer enter the property for any reason without the advance approval of the vice president of human resources. Your attorney should approve the final draft of the letter.

Finally, remember that EAPs also could serve as an excellent resource for your remaining employees. Realize that there will be a lot of confusion, shock and uneasiness among the employee’s co-workers who may need to talk through these emotions with an objective party.

Following these steps will help you protect all your employees, including the one in crisis.

For more information on how to locate a qualified EAP in your area, contact the Employee Assistance Professionals Association Inc. in Arlington, Va., at (703) 522-6272 or through its web site at

Paul Falcone is director of international human resources at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, Calif. He is the author of four books published by AMACOM, including The Hiring and Firing Question and Answer Book (2001) and 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination (1999). This article represents the views of the author solely as an individual and not in any other capacity.


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