Firing or laying someone off is one of the most stressful situations for a company. Typically, no one in management or human resources wants to be the bearer of bad news to an employee. But of course the stress goes both ways, because it’s also usually a very stressful time for the employee. At the moment someone hears, “We have to let you go,” a rush of emotions may overcome them. This can include concern, fear, anger and insecurity. And sometimes it is at this very instant that the termination can quickly go downhill… erupting into shouting, threats, physical violence and even death. However, if a company executes a pre-existing plan for termination, there is less of a chance of workplace violence happening.
According to The National Safety Council, there are over 2 million incidents of workplace violence reported in America each year. Despite this large number, some say that almost 25% of workplace violence goes unreported. Terminating an employee is one of the contributing factors to workplace violence. But, it’s not just the human toll… The economic toll is also great. It is estimated that 1.8 million days of work are lost, which equates to $55 million in lost wages per year. Some experts estimate that, in total, $130 billion is lost due to all workplace violence.
There are several steps that can be taken prior to terminating an employee to prevent workplace violence. If done correctly, these guidelines can help make this stressful situation conclude peacefully and without incident. While nothing can prevent random and unforeseen acts of violence, below we discuss some strategies that can lower the chances of workplace violence when terminating someone’s employment.
Don’t Rush It
This may be easier said than done in some instances. But the old adage applies: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Firing someone should never be done in haste. One of the first issues that must be considered is whether an employee holds the “keys to the kingdom.” Companies need to make sure—before terminating an employee—that they have the ability to secure any critical assets the employee may control or have access to… especially assets that could be used to cause harm or damage to the company if the termination is rushed (i.e. intellectual property/trade secrets/client contacts). Taking the time to understand the employee—and conduct a security threat assessment—is critical in preventing workplace violence.
Next, consider severance packages, who will do the firing, whether additional security is needed and where the termination will take place. Last, but certainly not least, are the potential legal ramifications of firing someone, so consultation with an attorney is also advised. Having a well thought out and properly vetted plan should always be the first step in the termination process. To be clear, even if you believe there may be no potential risk, life events happens to everyone and even good or “star” employees may make poor decisions when under significant stress—personal or professional. It is wise to conduct an assessment of any employee prior to termination. We explore this idea further in the next section.
Understanding The Employee
While having a plan is the first step, understanding the employee is the first line of defense. Obtaining information about an employee will help assess the possibility of confrontation or violence. Hiring an outside firm to conduct a security threat assessment is a great option if you have the time and resources. But the work history of the employee and their co-workers are often the best source of information. People who work directly or indirectly with an individual are likely to have stories—or information—about the employee’s relationships with co-workers, historical complaints, recent or periodic mood changes or other grievances with the company or a supervisor.
Protus3 Investigations Manager Chuck Hurst says employees can make a difference when a company has an open policy to report problems. “Train employees to ‘see something, say something.’ The telltale signs could be changes in their behaviors or mood, things that might be going on in their personal lives… You know, water cooler conversations. All of this provides information about an employee’s state of mind, who they may have grievances with and issues that they feel may have been unresolved. A quick interview with their co-workers can uncover a treasure trove of information.”
There are other personal factors to consider, such as a recent death or divorce. Perhaps their pension plan is close to vesting. Or there’s a serious illness in the family. Finally, a routine background check periodically after hire can uncover court cases involving aggressive behavior, physical abuse and drug problems.
Choosing The Right People
Firing an employee should always be done with at least two people present. This will protect the company from any liability due to potential employee misunderstanding… But a security threat assessment should dictate the actual number of people involved in the termination meeting. For instance, a high-level threat assessment is not the time for training a new employee or intern at the firing. At the same time, a manager or supervisor that has had issues with the employee should probably not be the person conducting the termination. The idea is to diffuse the situation, not escalate it. No one would bring gasoline into a burning house.
Be Firm, But Considerate
The termination should be firm and unequivocal… while showing compassion toward the terminated employee. For example, listen to their issues, but do not allow them to dominate the conversation. The decision has already been made… And in most cases the meeting should not last more than 15 minutes.
Be Dignified/Take The High Road
Chuck Hurst reminds everyone he works with, “Don’t forget, this is a person. Treating them with dignity and respect during the process is key. This is not the time to embarrass them.”
For example, unless the situation clearly dictates otherwise, try not to escort them from the building with armed guards. If possible, allow them to collect their personal effects after work while under supervision. Provide positive references to the extent possible. Of course, you cannot lie… But try to focus on their positive traits to future employers.
Providing Assistance Post-Firing
One of the biggest concerns of anyone recently fired is how they will supplement the lost income and benefits. If possible—and warranted—offer a severance plan to the employee. This could include extending their health insurance, assistance in seeking new employment or providing them with a few months’ salary. If your company is in the position to provide such assistance, it should always be considered… And any severance package should be in writing and presented in such a way that the employee can take with them after the meeting. Clearly, not all outgoing employees deserve a severance plan, and each instance needs a case-by-case evaluation.
Retaining An Outplacement Consultant
Providing additional options for the terminated employee can also be important. An outplacement consultant can assist the employee in finding new career opportunities in a timely manner. If your company is in the position to do this, the outplacement consultant should make contact as soon as possible. Preferably within 24 hours of the firing. Again, not all outgoing employees will be given an outplacement consultant—and each instance needs a case-by-case evaluation.
Questions may still arise after the termination. Maybe the employee is trying to get a recommendation or left personal items in the office. We believe a designated point-of-contact person should be established to address post-termination issues and questions. It is important to answer any follow-up questions quickly and not leave the person hanging. Ignoring reasonable work-related questions is probably not the best policy.