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Safer Separations

Treat potentially violent employees with respect during a termination.

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Emotions run high. Feelings get hurt. Misunderstandings and anger are common. But a termination shouldn't be dangerous. That's where psychologist and mediator Marc McElhaney comes in: 200 or 300 times a year, he helps HR professionals deal with difficult and potentially violent employees. Some cases involve suicidal, psychopathic or brain-damaged employees; substance abusers; and even those with prison records for murder. The author of Aggression in the Workplace: Preventing and Managing High-Risk Behavior (AuthorHouse, 2004) is president of Critical Response Associates LLC in Atlanta.

How do you define a successful termination?

A successful termination is a safe termination, one where the employer and employees feel safe during and after termination of a high-risk individual. Most workplace violence incidents occur long after the termination, even years later. Before you terminate a high-risk individual, stop and assess the situation.

What is the most common mistake HR professionals make when conducting involuntary terminations?

Acting too quickly, moving forward with the termination of a perceived high-risk employee without stopping and getting some help. It's a team effort. If you have a high-risk individual and you're going toward a high-risk event, you need to slow it down.

What is the procedure for assessing and managing risks?

Gather a team, including representatives from HR, legal and security. You may want to have a third-party consultant meet with the subject employee to stress early on that company officials want to review any concerns the employee may have about not being treated fairly. Throughout the process, actively identify and assess the risks and the needs of the individual. What is driving that person? If we assess well on the front end and address some of the employee's concerns, the employee will leave feeling that he or she was respectfully treated and, therefore, will be less likely to be a risk in the future.

How can HR professionals identify potential high-risk employees?

A high-risk employee makes people feel uncomfortable. Most people have pretty good internal alarm systems and intuitively understand when a person is a risk. But they generally don't report it because it's ambiguous. Compare notes with other people. If you get that uneasy feeling, you need to stop before terminating or disciplining this person. Don't set into motion events you cannot control.

What can an organization do to prevent workplace violence?

Have a policy on workplace violence. Establish a culture that addresses it early. Have a trained threat assessment team within your organization, with individuals capable of handling situations and finding resources. Train HR, security, legal and other personnel to address threats early. Train employees and supervisors to recognize threats and report them. If your employees aren't reporting threats early enough, you can't address them. Finally, any way that you can further the soon-to-be-terminated employee's sense of dignity and control, the better. Act in a respectful way so that when that employee walks out the door, the HR person isn't looking over his or her shoulder every morning.

The interviewer, a former HR generalist and trainer, is a freelance writer in Wixom, Mich.

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