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Managing High-Risk Employees

A lot gets written about workplace violence, either in the aftermath of an incident or about how to minimize the possibility of such an event. There is talk about the need for more vigilance in the HR and security functions, the need for more policies, more access-control devices and better partnerships with the police. Others focus on anti-bullying campaigns for the workplace and the need for more government directives, safety enhancements and state laws on related workplace crimes. But what about managing an ongoing case involving a high-risk employee who has made threats but has not acted on them? What are the best practices the HR department can provide when the C-suite turns to it for help?

Policies often look great on paper. Real response plans are active and subject to ongoing review and improvement. Success in workplace violence prevention is equal parts intelligent response and observation, using as many team-based resources as possible, in anticipation of the subject’s potential actions, along with a mixture of intuition, experience and a thorough understanding of people who make threats versus those who pose threats.

Administrative Management

Some HR departments take a position that suggests the faster we can get rid of a disturbed, angry or threatening employee, the better. This may well be true, but it misses the larger idea of using good supervisory skills to either manage the employee up (back to a level of appropriate performance and behavior, using coaching, discipline and consequences) or out (safe and humane termination), all the while protecting the individual’s dignity and the safety of the organization’s other workers.

Humane supervision and treatment. Much research into the motives for employee violence suggests that many perpetrators targeted certain bosses or HR representatives because they felt mistreated by them. Some workers who are hypersensitive to being slighted, so-called injustice collectors, believe that they have been persecuted by their supervisors. It may require a supervisor to do some skillful role-playing and not let his or her true feelings of frustration come out while coaching these employees.

Coaching meetings. While coaching is not an appropriate choice for an individual who is actively threatening, it may help in the aftermath of a low-level behavioral outburst. Some anxious or frustrated employees just want to be heard. Coaching meetings can redirect negative behaviors and set better boundaries—before the worker is at risk of being fired. And, just as important, they can provide a forum for the employee to vent.

Performance improvement plans (PIPs). Some supervisors create PIPs that are vague and focused on labels (e.g., “You need to fix your attitude”), instead of behaviors (e.g., “You need to stop arguing with your co-workers and supervisor.”) If there are no consequences for a behavior or performance issue, at worst it will escalate, and at best it won’t stop. These plans must be monitored and enforced (and should include praise when the employee conforms).

Creative HR solutions. Employees under a lot of personal or professional stress may lash out in the workplace. As they begin to sink under the weight of the work or home issues that affect them, they often see no hope. The HR department can be a good source of help, using reasonable accommodation, giving paid or unpaid time off, or providing support in navigating the complexities of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), or referrals to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider.

Courageous, progressive discipline. The value of progressive discipline is twofold: It gets more severe the less the employee complies, and it’s flexible enough to allow the HR department or the supervisor to skip steps when necessary. For example, we wouldn’t start with an oral warning for someone who threatens to bring a gun to work; we would jump ahead to a suspension, investigation and decision. The problem comes when the HR team or the supervisor fails to use progressive discipline as it was meant—progressively. Two violations in six months should mean the chosen discipline must account for both incidents, and not start at zero after each new violation.

Benevolent severance. This is a controversial but critical idea. If we can largely agree that many workplace violence perpetrators are driven by some combination of economic stress, mental illness, the desire for revenge, and a triggering event, then we can lessen the impact of each of these by using outside-the-box HR tools, such as graduated severance pay (based on ongoing behavioral compliance), continued medical or EAP coverage beyond COBRA, outplacement help and an agreed-upon response for reference check calls from other employers.

Security Management

We will never know what security device, procedure, situational awareness or act of vigilance drives some subjects away from violence. But here are some best practices.

Access-control improvements. We know that employees often trade security for convenience, leaving doors unlocked, allowing unbadged tailgaters to follow them in or failing to challenge potential trespassers. The best security devices can be defeated by human error or lack of concern.

Armed or unarmed security officers. Increasing the site’s security staffing levels with armed and unarmed officers can provide more observation, calm employee fears and demonstrate due diligence. Yet a vexing question exists: How long do we keep armed security in the lobby or in the building? What is the appropriate amount of time after a high-risk termination? Qualified, skilled and screened armed security is expensive. Taking officers away too early can alarm employees who don’t believe that the company is serious about protecting them. Leaving them on post, with no end in sight, is costly.

Cyber access control and monitoring. While covert or overt threats that come to the organization via e-mail should not always require an immediate cease-and-desist response, it is important to monitor all cyber correspondence for escalation, repetition and rising seriousness.HR representatives should meet with company IT experts to help reroute threatening or disruptive e-mails aimed at certain targets or company executives.

Increased law enforcement. Asking local police for extra patrols may be helpful, especially if it is both random and regular, so that subjects who may be surveilling the premises can’t predict if or when the cops will drive by.

Home and work safety plans. These plans should remind employees that they have a stake in protecting themselves at work, including evacuating, calling 911 or going to a safe room, as well as paying attention to their home environment and calling police if they have any contact with high-risk workers off the job.

Information Management

The more we know about the backstory or motivational drivers of a threatening subject, the better we can respond. Often it’s what is not so obvious that makes a difference in understanding the reasons people make or try to act on their threats. Even gossip can be a valid source of information.

Work-history file review. Looking at the employee’s work behavior and performance over his or her tenure with the organization can reveal patterns of conflict, misconduct or failed relationships, and may give clues as to why the individual may be specifically targeting others.

Forensic statement analyses. Threat assessment professionals can offer insights into what subjects are saying or writing, by looking at the words they choose or don’t choose. They can help support conclusions about escalation, targeting, loss of hope, submerged aggression, anger, manic behaviors, depression, and suicidal or homicidal ideations.

Review of social media. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, blogs and other open-source sites can offer security, HR and IT representatives a wide array of information about a troubled worker’s ideas, plans, motives and triggers.

Input from concerned family, friends, co-workers. Many school and workplace violence plots were thwarted when people had the courage to come forward and notify companies, supervisors, security, school district administrators, principals, counselors, teachers and law enforcement about threats they heard from the high-risk employee.

Mental Health Management

Here is where your organization can benefit from an established partnership with both your EAP provider and a licensed mental health clinician, preferably one who already has a working knowledge of your firm, its culture and its people. You should work with a mental health professional who is forensically trained in threat assessment.

Assessing suicidal versus homicidal behavioral cues. Does what the at-risk employee is saying or writing suggest depression, anxiety, rage, misdirected anger and frustration? Do you see signs in conversations, phone calls and messages, e-mails and texts, or social media site postings of suicidal ideations such as finality, loss of hope, or saying goodbye? Or have you witnessed homicidal threats like targeting statements and behaviors, proof of weapons acquisition or practicing, surveillance, stalking, boundary probing or attack preparation?

EAP referrals. As part of humane coaching, discipline and even terminations, it can help to fully explain this resource to the disturbed employee and try to remove the stigma of getting qualified clinical help.

Fitness for Duty (FFD) evaluations. An FFD evaluation determines if a problematic individual can return to full work and if any work restrictions or accommodations must be made.

Medication-compliance awareness. Although this is a HIPAA and a medical privacy issue, many times subjects who are taking psychotropic medications for depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder will freely admit to their friends or co-workers that, due to the side effects or because they suddenly feel better, they have stopped taking their medications. This information can be helpful in assessing the employee’s behavior in context.

Return-to-work strategies. If the organization decides to allow an employee who made threats or acted out to return to work, it must have a transition plan. This includes boundary setting, family or spousal support, closer supervision, and buy-in from the employee’s supervisor and co-workers.

HR professionals often ask which of these approaches works best. The answer is always the same: It depends. The reality of workplace violence prevention is that we don’t always know what drives a subject off the path from ideas to actions. As with many issues in security, and as with employee violence prevention, we prove success through the absence of the problem.

Dr. Steve Albrecht, PHR, co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first business books on workplace violence. He is certified in HR, security and employee coaching. He can be reached at


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