Firing Violent Employees Safely

By Beth Mirza Mar 29, 2010
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When an employee is causing serious problems in the workplace—threatening co-workers or making others feel uncomfortable—li​ne managers often just want to get rid of him. “Make him go away,” they beg HR managers.

Not so fast, cautions psychologist Marc McElhaney, president of Critical Response Associates, a consulting firm that helps organizations conduct threat assessments, manage crises and separate high-risk workers from the organization safely. If the worker doesn’t see the termination coming, he’s more likely to take the news badly—and might act out violently.

During a presentation sponsored by Pinkerton, a global security services company, McElhaney advised HR, safety and facilities managers on how to assess and manage the risks involved in firing potentially violent workers. It’s not always best to show them the door immediately, he said.

Instead, HR and safety leaders need to slow down and assess the situation to learn as much about the employee as they can; acting quickly might only escalate the potential for violence, he said.

The number of violent incidents in society has decreased over the past several years, McElhaney said, except for incidents of workplace violence. Terminations and downsizings have incited more former employees to violence. And those on the job aren’t immune from violent acts: Workplace suicides have increased 25 percent in recent years, perhaps from “survivor’s guilt” and increased stress and pressure at work, McElhaney said.

Employers can prevent violence by dealing with problem behaviors as they crop up, McElhaney said. Even the employees who have caused the most unease in the workplace might have stellar performance reviews because their managers don’t want to have the difficult conversations with the employee to address and correct the behavior, McElhaney said. So the employee, having never heard differently, is upset and defensive when he hears he’s going to be let go.

Know Your Employees

In McElhaney’s experience, there are four general types of problem employee who might cause trouble if they are fired. He cautioned, however, that there’s no profile of someone most likely to commit violence—anyone is capable of it.

The Workplace Bully has a history of intimidation. He gets away with bad behavior because no one wants to confront him or make him mad. “People excuse his behavior, but why does this guy get special permission?” McElhaney asked.

The Disgruntled Employee believes he has been treated unfairly and can’t let go of feeling abused by the organization. He is withdrawn, goes to work in a daze, is unhappy and blames the system for his problems. When he is fired, he might take that opportunity to get back at the company.

The Overly Attached Employee is “the one who won’t go away,” McElhaney said. This person’s identity is dependent on his job. He doesn’t have many friends or family. Work is his social life, his recreation, his sense of self. If he is fired, he’ll feel betrayed, rejected and angry.

The Nothing Left to Lose Employee is usually in emotional distress because of recent, critical losses in his life. He might be divorced or widowed, have a limited support system, even seem suicidal. McElhaney gave the example of a man who worked for an organization where McElhaney consulted. The man was a poor performer and getting worse, so the company moved him across the country to try to “shake him up” and give him a fresh start. His performance got even worse, and the organization asked McElhaney to counsel him prior to firing him. As McElhaney talked with him, he learned that before the move, the man had serious back problems and had been prescribed strong painkillers. He became addicted to the pain medication. Around the same time, he developed a severe gambling addiction. His wife divorced him and he lost custody of their children. When he moved to the new site, his apartment was broken into and thieves stole all of his possessions. He brought a handgun to work one day, a co-worker told McElhaney, because he didn’t want the thieves to come back for his one, last possession.

No one person in the company knew that this man had so many problems, McElhaney said. If companies know what’s going on in their employees’ lives, he said, companies would handle terminations much differently.

In another case, a company feared that one of its workers that it wanted to fire was suicidal. Unbeknownst to the company, the man had two children with chronic diseases and was panicked that he would lose his health care. McElhaney suggested the company offer the man six months of health care, and in return the man would have to receive counseling. The counselor would report back on his progress to his manager. The man appreciated the health care but was more grateful that “somebody heard him and made the effort to help,” McElhaney said. Six months of health care was a worthwhile investment to the company to prevent a violent act, he added.

In addition, it helps to gather several managers and leaders to pool information about problem employees, McElhaney added. Taken together, the details that each person provides create a fuller picture of the employee.

Five Steps

McElhaney recommended five steps to follow to terminate a high-risk employee:

Pause. Don’t avoid dealing with the person, but don’t just kick them out the door either, McElhaney said.“Making him go away won’t get rid of him,” he said. And once he is fired, companies don’t have a lot of options to deal with him or his behaviors.

Confer with colleagues. Pull leaders and managers together and ask for a reality check on the employee’s behavior. Don’t mitigate his actions; talk about what he’s been doing. But if you provide Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselors, they may not be equipped to assess a dangerous employee with a personality disorder, McElhaney said. Many psychologists and counselors aren’t trained to recognize those signs, he warned.

Assess the risk. All companies should have a threat response team, McElhaney said, including people from HR, legal and security, who are trained in dealing with problem employees. Collect information on the person and assess how he will be let go and what the possible outcomes will be.

Control, contain and stabilize the situation. Address any immediate security concerns. Exit the employee from the workplace, on good terms if possible. Perhaps offer paid leave while his case is reviewed—whatever will “make him happy,” McElhaney said—and appoint one person that he can contact with questions. Give the employee time to defuse and control his impulses, McElhaney added.

Plan the termination. This process happens throughout all five steps, McElhaney said. Review all the details with the threat response team. In one of his cases, the team had planned and even rehearsed the termination, and were preparing to carry it out, when the HR manager noticed that the day planned for the firing was the employee’s birthday.

When it’s time to fire the employee, “separate completely,” McElhaney advised. Don’t invite them back to lunch, don’t reinforce the relationship, and consider using outplacement services to further separate the employee from the company. “Be fair and respectful” even though you may be fed up with the person, he added, because this is his last memory of the company. Don’t automatically obtain a restraining order or bar the person from the premises, McElhaney cautioned—it might just make the employee even angrier and spur him on.

“If you can make him satisfied [by hearing out any problems] and make it a win-win [by providing some sort of severance], you won’t need a restraining order,” McElhaney said.

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at

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