When and How Should HR Step into Violent Situations?

By Roy Maurer May 25, 2015
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Threatening situations between employees can erupt suddenly in the workplace, ranging from shouting and making threats to physical harm. HR practitioners may be called upon to calm the situation and defuse any potential for violence.

Dr. Steve Albrecht, a San Diego-based HR and security consultant, workplace violence prevention trainer, and author, discussed with SHRM Online some conflict-resolution techniques and when to use them.

SHRM Online: When is it appropriate for HR to attempt to calm an angry or violent person?

Albrecht: HR can become the default, go-to problem-solver for angry employees when managers or supervisors lack the skills, confidence or courage to address the issues that angered the employees in the first place. All managers and supervisors should know how to read the early warning signs for impending anger and when to use de-escalation tools, instead of trying to pass the employees off to HR.

HR professionals should see themselves in support roles, to be ready to sit in on those highly stressful and difficult meetings with angry or stressed-out employees, and help managers or supervisors guide the communication process. They can serve as a witness, change the ratios of confrontation from one-to-one to two-to-one, and offer specific suggestions, without having to run the meeting.

SHRM Online: What if there’s been a violent incident, such as an assault?

Albrecht: If there has been an act of workplace violence, HR’s best role is to address the employee, safely and carefully, using space and distance, and advise him or her that he or she can leave for the day and they will get back in contact. Once the employee has left, HR should call the police and provide as much background data and information as possible for their report. HR should also advise employees who were threatened or assaulted that they have the right to make a citizen’s arrest. This is important because the police cannot arrest for a misdemeanor they did not see, as they can for a felony. Victim-employees need to know they should enforce consequences for the violent employee’s actions. Having a police report is a necessary due diligence step, even if a victim-employee does not want to make the citizen’s arrest.

SHRM Online: Take us through the de-escalation process.

Albrecht: Angry employees often want to vent, so let them. Now is not the time to lecture them on their behavior or performance problems; the key is to let them be heard, without interruption or being defensive. The absolute worst thing you can say to a person who is not calm is, “Calm down.” This never works and it often comes across as parental and condescending. It’s better to say, “I can see you’re upset. I want to help you, which I can only do if you don’t yell. I want to hear your side of the issue. I know we can come up with a solution, even though it might not be clear to you right now.” These empathy-building statements can lower the emotional temperature, and can buy the HR manager some time to figure out what is really going on. The more they can keep the conversation going, the better chance to get the angry employee to begin to see that HR is there on his or her behalf.

HR managers should be supportive and assertive, as in, “I hear you and I understand the frustrations you just told me. I know you don’t want this to become a bad situation, so why don’t you go back to your work area”—or send them home—“and I’ll call you later to tell you what I found out.”

The key is to get the angry employee to either get back to work and try to salvage the rest of their workday while the HR manager investigates the issues and triggers for the situation, or get the employee to leave the facility without creating further or worse problems.

SHRM Online: What are actions that managers should not take when de-escalating a situation?

Albrecht: Besides not saying “Calm down,” it’s important to use low and careful tones. Matching the employee shout for shout is unprofessional and just leads to more of the same. Give the angry employee hope. If he or she says, “Am I going to be fired for what I just said or did?” reassure him or her that your first priority is to figure out what happened. Don’t make rash statements or counter-threats, but don’t under- or overpromise either. If the employee punched a co-worker, don’t sugarcoat it, just don’t reveal what the consequences are just yet.

SHRM Online: When should HR know that de-escalation is not working, and what should be done then?

Albrecht: Venting is useful because it tells us what the employee is thinking or feeling. I’m significantly concerned when the employee stops talking, becomes very flat in his or her emotional affect, and says ominous things like, “This isn’t over” or “I now know what I need to do.” Those are warning signals of an employee who may have made a decision to act out and has crossed a point of no return in his or her mind.

Some situations with employees may need more than an HR intervention, including an escort by security out of the building, an arrest by law enforcement, or an immediate referral to a crisis counselor from the Employee Assistance Program who can meet with the employee at the work facility within the hour. HR professionals need to be intuitive and flexible to read the signs and know when to get more help for situations that are escalating.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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