What if l suspect that an employee may react violently to being terminated?

Despite your best efforts to treat employees with dignity and respect at the termination meeting, some employees, albeit a statistical minority, may react physically to being terminated. We all hear about cases of employees pulling out weapons at termination meetings or returning to work the following Monday morning to exact revenge on their supervisors and coworkers.

Bearing that in mind, let s address some tips for avoiding violence during or after dismissal, a common ''triggering event of workplace violence:

- Conduct termination meetings as early in the day and as early in the week as possible.

- Physically seat yourself between the employee and the door. In other words, you should have access to the door and not be blocked by the employee should an emergency exit become necessary.

- When necessary, employ the services of a security firm to attend the termination meeting in plainclothes, to wait outside your office door, or at least to be standing by a phone in the lobby.

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Many companies terminate employees as late in the day on Friday afternoons as possible. This is a mistake. The traditional logic was simply this: The dismissal should occur as late in the day as possible so that coworkers were not impacted. Friday afternoons made sense so that a ''clean break could be made with the workplace and, more important, so that the whole matter could be swept under the rug by keeping it out of sight.

Unfortunately, many workplace violence incidents occur on Monday mornings because distressed, terminated employees have no one to talk or appeal to. They spend the weekend brooding over the wrong that was done to them and, in a void of communication, determine to wreak havoc on the perceived wrongdoers.

Dismissal meetings that occur early in the day and early in the week, on the other hand, allow employees the opportunity to question what went wrong. They can discuss their perceptions of what led up to the termination and have their questions answered regarding unemployment insurance, reference checks, and company records.

Seating arrangements are important in termination meetings. If an employee is armed and standing between you and the door, you'll have no way out. Whenever possible, seat the employee away from the door at the far end of the room. This should allow you a means of quick escape should that become necessary.

Finally, if you reasonably suspect that the employee may react violently, it will be a good investment on your part to invite armed security to your meeting. For example, a mortgage banking firm planned to terminate an employee on a Tuesday. When that employee appeared at work that day, he was wearing a full-length black leather coat and dark sunglasses, and he carried a gym bag that appeared heavy. The employer reasoned that this was cause for concern, since it was a hot summer day, and this employee never came to work dressed like that before.

The company called a security firm and arranged to have an armed officer attend the termination meeting. The officer kept a revolver in his briefcase on the desk. He was introduced to the employee as a member of the human resources department visiting from the home office. The meeting went without incident. The cost to the company for the armed security officer's presence was $140 ($35 an hour at a four-hour minimum charge). That's a very reasonable fee for such important work.

How can I allay some of the anxiety and depression that come with termination?

With early-in-the-day, early-in-the-week terminations, the company also has the advantage of explaining—several times if necessary—its need to terminate the individual's employment. Managers can explain that employees who are terminated for cause typically receive unemployment insurance (or that, at least, the company won't contest the unemployment insurance claim). They can also confirm that no specifics regarding references will be released to prospective employers other than the individual's title and dates of employment. All this will usually go a long way toward allaying the terminated employee's fears about his immediate future and his ability to receive income while in career transition. In addition, employee assistance programs and outplacement services may help.

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Employee assistance programs can be helpful in providing the employee with counseling and psychological support at the time of termination. This benefit, when available, is typically extended for three months after layoffs occur and employees are let go for no fault of their own; there's no reason why the benefit couldn't be extended for those terminated for cause. If you choose to continue EAP coverage, call the EAP to work out the additional premiums. (Coverage typically ends upon termination of employment.) More important, use this opportunity to ask the EAP to notify you if any threats or aggressive actions surface in the counseling session.

Outplacement programs are likewise an excellent benefit for terminated workers because they help those employees immediately focus on the future, rather than lament the present. Statistically speaking, few employees who get outplacement sue the companies that fired them. More important, this benefit can go a long way toward aiding an otherwise unbalanced individual who is trying to come to terms with the reasons he was given for his termination and who is attempting to find fault with supervisors or coworkers.

How do I announce that an employee has been terminated?

After an employee is terminated and leaves the premises, it becomes necessary to tend to those left behind. Even when coworkers believe that the termination is justified, it's difficult to carry on. Some people feel awkward mentioning the individual's name; others want more information regarding the incidents that led up to the termination; still others will stir the proverbial pot and want to gossip about the matter.

As the employer, it s important that you allay staff members fears about a termination for cause. Yes, sometimes firing employees becomes a necessary business decision and rightfully reminds people that their jobs aren't guaranteed. Still, after an employee separation, it becomes time to heal the wound. It s an important opportunity for you to bring people together to answer their questions and to show that the ex-employee was treated fairly and with dignity. It s also an opportunity to bring closure to a matter that may have been brewing for months or even years.

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Besides its healing effect, announcing an employee s separation properly will help you stave off potential claims of defamation. Wrongful termination claims often come with add-on charges such as discrimination, harassment, and slander (i.e., falsely spoken charges or misrepresentations that defame and damage someone s reputation). Ex-employees lawyers may claim that former supervisors and coworkers maligned or disparaged the plaintiff after she left the company. In addition, attorneys may claim that inaccurate references were given to prospective employers that precluded the individual from getting a job. And voila—your company is involved in lost-wages litigation, in addition to facing wrongful discharge and discrimination charges.

Here s how to handle this delicate issue and bring closure to remaining employees concerns while minimizing potential legal challenges:

Everyone, I'm calling this staff meeting to let you all know that today was Sarah's last day with the company. She left just before lunch, and I didn't want you all wondering where she was. Out of respect for her privacy, I'm not at liberty to share the reasons for her leaving the company. I want you all to know that we treated her respectfully and handled the matter with dignity.

I also want to remind you all that any reference phone calls from prospective employers or from headhunters have to be forwarded to human resources; this is just a confirmation that you're not permitted to give references as per company policy. I'd also ask that you refrain from any unnecessary speculation regarding her leaving.

Again, out of respect for her privacy, it's better that we leave matters be. I want to take this opportunity to see whether any of you have questions or concerns. If not, we can all head back to work now that I've made the announcement. What are your thoughts, everyone?

In short, this is a professional way of handling separation announcements. You'll have ''done right'' by the terminated worker. It won't get back to the ex-employee that management disparaged her reputation. If coworkers engage in gossip nonetheless, management can always confirm that it did its best to minimize any discussion of the topic among the rank and file. Short and sweet and done with class, such a communication deals with the employee s separation from the organization and allows the remaining employees to get on with business.

 
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