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Workplace Violence Prevention

Deadly Terminations … and How to Avoid Them

James Madero | October 1, 2004

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This approach works the most effectively when it is used by a team, particularly a team that includes a workplace violence prevention specialist that has extensive experience in threat assessment and incident management, and has participated in numerous such terminations.

Nancy and Julia were two of their company's best human resources managers. They had both been with their company for over 12 years, yet they had never encountered anyone like Harry M. He had been with their company for less than a year. During this time, he had alienated and upset just about anyone who had worked with him. He was rude, verbally abusive, and frequently uncooperative with both coworkers and customers alike. Harry had been counseled about his behavior on several occasions. He been warned that if he did not change his behavior he could be terminated. The final straw came when Harry ignored a supervisor's request and threatened the supervisor with bodily harm.

The Fatal Break

Nancy and Julia were tasked with terminating Harry's employment. They had expressed some concern for their safety because of Harry's hostile and belligerent nature. Their company shared their concern, and notified the local police department with whom they had an excellent relationship. Two officers were assigned to be present at the facility on the day of the termination. They parked their patrol car in front of the building, near the front entrance. The officers informed Nancy and Julia they could be available on a moment's notice should their assistance be required.

Nancy and Julia conducted the termination meeting with Harry in the company's first floor conference room. The meeting started out relatively quietly, but began to increase in intensity when Harry was told that he was being terminated. He maintained that according to company policy, he believed he should be placed on probation. Harry argued his point quite forcefully, and with a great deal of emotion. When he saw that he seemed to be losing the argument, he abruptly stopped and asked to take a break, so that he could go to the bathroom and regain his composure.

Nancy and Julia agreed to a 10-minute break. It seemed like a reasonable request, and they were glad to have a few minutes away from Harry. During the break, Harry left the conference room and headed for the bathroom. When he was finished in the bathroom, he went to his office for a few minutes. He then returned to the conference room, and gave Nancy and Julia one more chance to change their mind about the termination. When they refused, he took out the nine millimeter pistol that he had gotten from his office, and shot and killed Nancy and Julia.

A Disastrous Ending

Bill H. had always been something of a loner at work. His job provided him with numerous opportunities to interact with coworkers and customers, yet he rarely said more than one or two words to them beyond what was necessary to do his job. Bill lived alone, had no friends that anyone knew about, and seemed to stay late at work almost every night of the week. He would even be seen on weekends working in his office. When asked about this, he said that he loved his job, and that it was the most important thing in his life.

About a year after he was hired, Bill began to take sick leave days on a regular basis. One day he came into work with a note from his doctor placing him on short-term disability. Bill returned to work several weeks later, and shared with his supervisor that he had gone out on disability because he needed to be hospitalized for a severe depression. He told his supervisor that he was feeling much better and was ready to resume working. Bill's first few weeks back at work were relatively uneventful. He continued to put long hours in at work, including weekends. He also mentioned to his supervisor how grateful he was to the company for their support, and that his job was the one and only thing that mattered to him in his life.

A few weeks later things took a turn for the worse. There were rumors going around the office that the company was going to downsize. Bill became increasingly depressed and agitated over this. At one point he told his supervisor that he didn't know what he would do if he lost his job. What Bill feared would happen, did happen. He was called into his supervisor's office and told that his job was being eliminated. Bill pleaded with his supervisor not to end his employment. He talked about the long hours he had given to the company each week, and how his work performance was considerably better than most of the people that were remaining.

Bill's pleas were in vain. He was given what the company thought was a generous severance package. On his last day of work, he went up to the supervisor, and in an uncharacteristic display of emotion, told the supervisor how angry he was at him and the company for what they had done to him. He said he felt his life was over, but wanted to live long enough to see everyone pay for what they had done to him. He then calmed down and left. Bill's supervisor thought about telling human resources about Bill's comments, but then decided not to, since he had been involved in a number of terminations when people became upset and said things they didn't mean.

Three days later Bill returned to his former workplace with a gun. He killed his former supervisor and two other coworkers before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide.

Dangerous Similarities

The incidents described above have a number of similarities: both employees were clearly dissatisfied and unhappy, both made their feelings known to supervisory personnel, both felt they were being treated unfairly, and both resorted to violence that ended in tragedies. These incidents were also similar in two other important ways: (1) there were mistakes made by supervisory personnel, and (2) they could have been prevented.

The Tools of Prevention

In the early 1990s, television and newspaper media were filled with stories about workplace homicides. Hardly a week would go by without a report of some employee or exemployee going to his or her worksite and killing one or more coworkers. Some of the most infamous of these incidents took place at U.S. Postal Service facilities in places such as Dearborn, Michigan; Edmonds, Oklahoma; Escondido, California; Dana Point, California; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The consciousness of the country was raised and attempts were made to prevent future incidents like these from happening. At the time, over 1,000 homicides were occurring each year at the workplace. Many companies and organizations responded to this by developing workplace violence prevention programs. Today there are approximately 40 percent fewer workplace homicides than there were in the early 1990s. Workplace violence prevention programs have played an important role in reducing the number of homicides.

One of the most important components of a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program is a procedure for terminating a potentially violent employee, so that tragedies such as those described above can be avoided. Whereas in the past many potentially violent individuals were terminated somewhat abruptly and without much thought or long-term planning, today's potentially violent employee's termination is often the end result of a carefully thought out process involving several members of the employer's workplace violence prevention team. This team is has representatives from human resources, legal, security, and executive management. An outside consultant specializing in workplace violence prevention and threat assessment and incident management is usually a key member of the team.

The team generally has a set of well-developed and clearly articulated processes and procedures that are implemented when there is the potential for violence during a termination. Once the possibility of a dangerous termination occurs, the team takes steps to insure the safety of all involved, and in particular, tries to avoid placing anyone involved in harm's way. This process may include moving potential targets off-site and/or to safe and secure areas, placing armed security on-site, and calling upon other resources to help protect all involved. Each situation has elements unique to it, so each situation requires a unique investigation and solution that hopefully end s peacefully.

Harry M.—The Team's Approach

Clearly there was some awareness of potential for violence or else the police would not have been asked to be present during his termination. What was apparently missing was a clearly articulated set of procedures that were part of a workplace violence prevention plan developed by Harry's employer. The "best practice" plans include procedures for terminating a potentially violent employee. The procedures include determining where and when the meeting will take place, who will be present, how will they be dressed, where will they be seated, what will be in the room, how long will the meeting last, and how and when will Harry enter end leave the building.

Prior to the meeting the team should go through an exercise involving every "what if" they can imagine. These would include: "What if Harry gets angry during the meeting and makes a threat?"; "What if Harry comes to the meeting with a briefcase that could contain a weapon?"; "What if Harry has a weapon in his car and decides to use it after the meeting?"; "What if Harry has a weapon hidden in his office?" These are just some of the questions to be asked. The answers to these questions should then help formulate a plan for terminating Harry in such a way as to minimize or eliminate the potential for violence.

This approach works the most effectively when it is used by a team, particularly a team that includes a workplace violence prevention specialist that has extensive experience in threat assessment and incident management, and has participated in numerous such terminations. This specialist would have advised the team that it would be safer to have the armed officers close by, perhaps in an adjacent room. The specialist would also have advised that Harry not be permitted to return to his office. Two of the "Rules To Live By" when terminating a potentially violent employee are: (1) Do not take any breaks during the meeting, and (2) Do not let the employee return to his work area. Having the officers nearby and following these two rules most likely would have resulted in a non-tragic ending.

Bill M.—The Team Approach

In this instance a team approach would most likely have taken Bill's comments about the importance of the job to him very seriously, and considered the possibility that Bill was losing the only thing that mattered to him. This loss, along with his reports of depression should have led the team to consider the "What Ifs?" in Bill's situation, particularly the possibility that he might attempt to harm himself. After Bill became angry and made the threatening statements, another "What If?" should have included the possibility that Bill could continue to escalate his anger after he left the work site and subsequently return and attempt to carry out his threats. Consideration could then be given to take security measures to prevent this from happening.

A Hindsight Approach?

It is possible to read the above and argue that the solutions proposed are based on hindsight, and that it is not difficult to propose alternate responses to a situation once the situation occurs. Such a position may be true in some instances, but not in the present instance. The work of the many people who have developed workplace violence prevention programs, and the experiences of the thousands of people who have managed incidents have resulted in a body of knowledge that provides the tools and solutions to manage potentially violent incidents with foresight and in a way that clearly diminishes the potential for a tragic incident. It remains only for those facing such incidents to call upon the resources that are available to them, and to seek the assistance of others who have successfully dealt with these situations.

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