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How to Fire an Employee Safely

When HR professionals prepare to terminate an employee's employment, they frequently consult with legal counsel. But they often neglect to get the advice of security experts to help conduct a workplace violence threat assessment.

That's a big mistake—with potentially devastating consequences, a security expert told HR professionals attending a preconference workshop at the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition.

Despite frequent reports of workplace violence, most employers don't believe such tragedies could happen at their company. They're in denial, said Jeff Sweetin, chief operating officer at Athos Group LLC, a corporate security outsourcing and consulting company in Irving, Texas.

"Most people's strategy is just to hope it won't happen," he said.

While there is no specific requirement to conduct a threat assessment as part of a termination plan, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA's) general duty clause requires employers to provide a safe workplace free from hazards that are likely to cause death or serious harm to employees, he said.

Some physical indicators that an employee is prone to violence might seem obvious: abusive language, violent gestures and clenched fists, for example. But others might be more subtle. Sometimes managers and co-workers ignore odd behavior because they're used to it, attributing it to "Charlie being Charlie," Sweetin said. A security expert sees the threat, he said.

After assessing the threat, meet with your legal and security staff to ensure security is considered throughout every step of the termination process. After you've made the decision to fire an employee, do so quickly and reduce his contact with his supervisor and co-workers so that he doesn't have a chance to retaliate. Keep the termination meeting short, and don't engage in debate or arguments, which may feed the employee's anger, Sweetin said.

If a termination meeting is expected to be volatile, have the meeting in a room near a building exit so the employee can be escorted out quickly. Direct co-workers in the vicinity to take an early lunch. "If something goes wrong, [ask yourself] 'who could get in the way?' " Sweetin says.

Always try to avoid embarrassing the employee. Help him or her maintain dignity. Have security officers present but keeping a low profile. Don't invite a muscle-bound staffer to act as an unofficial "bouncer." He's not trained; plus, if either employee is injured in a fight, the company will be liable, Sweetin said.

If the employee makes threatening statements during the termination meeting, take them seriously. Hire security officers to protect your staff after the employee is fired.

Don't forget to check how the employee usually gets home. If he or she carpools, for example, you might want to arrange for a cab. Give photos of the person to the receptionist and plan a response in case the person comes back. In some cases, the husband of a terminated employee came to the worksite making threats, he said.

Sweetin recalled a case of an HR professional who was preparing to terminate the employment of a man who was known to search the Internet for assault weapons while at work. The employer was in Texas where employees are allowed to have guns in their vehicles on the job. Sweetin checked out his car and photographed an open box of ammunition left on the floor of the car. He also learned that the employee's wife had just left him. He had the appearance of someone with nothing left to live for. Sweetin brought in 12 off-duty police officers to be ready in case the man retrieved the gun from his car and came back into the office. But he never came back.

Shelly Forcier, SHRM-CP, senior human resources administrator at Delaware Solid Waste Authority in Dover, Del., said she signed up for the workshop because she recently had to make several difficult terminations. With just 116 employees, she says, her company can't afford to hire a security officer. The workshop helped her to gain "all the intel" from Sweetin to be able to conduct terminations in a safer way, she said.

Sam Simpson, HR manager at Alpine Lumber Co., in Westminster, Colo., said he also has gone through several "hostile" situations with employees being terminated. He said he gained ideas for training managers at his workplace of 550 employees.

Sweetin's cautionary tales brought home the importance of taking adequate security precautions.

"A workplace violence incident might happen once in a million times. But that one time, there's a life taken," Simpson said.


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