The horrific event that unfolded in February at a manufacturing plant in Aurora, IL—when a longtime employee, in the midst of being fired, pulled out a gun and killed three people and wounded several more before his rampage ended—is a risk every employer faces.
A job termination is an especially delicate task—one that should follow a specific security game plan every time it happens.
According to a national survey of company security executives, 26 percent perceive the act of firing employees as “significantly contributing” to the risk of violence in the workplace. Not surprisingly, the issue is seen as particularly problematic by security leaders at large organizations.
Although the danger is rather obvious, Richard Sem, a consultant and regular expert witness in workplace violence cases, said he still sees employers mishandle these employee termination process events. “Helping workers preserve their dignity is important, so they still have something left to lose,” he said. Sem said it’s when a worker feels he or she has lost everything that a violent incident is most likely.
The United States Postal Service (USPS) has certainly had its share of high-profile problems with disgruntled ex—workers-giving birth to the common slang expression “going postal”—but USPS has worked hard to address the risk, implementing a “soft exit program” to provide managers with a support system when they have to fire an employee. An HR representative joins the supervisor during a termination and speaks with the employee about any unresolved issues, such as benefits, pay, and so on. The employee is told to address any further questions to HR in an effort to take the supervisor out of the communication link, according to a HR specialist with the USPS. It’s critical that a relationship that is likely bad already not be allowed to get worse through additional contact between the parties during the employee termination process, noted Sem.
Risk Assessments for the Employee Termination Process
Prior to delivering bad news to an employee, retailers need to spend sufficient time reviewing the individual’s employment history to look for signs that special security measures might be necessary.
- Employees with a history of violence or threats represent a higher risk, and the employee termination process for those individuals should follow the strictest security measures.
- If the employee’s record shows he or she has a history of filing grievances or lawsuits, retailers should also be on high alert, as studies show that such individuals pose a greater risk of future violence.
- Although prior violent acts are the most accurate predictor of future violent behavior, nonviolent employees who have expressed unfounded or delusional claims that coworkers are “out to get them” should be considered high risk when they are terminated, suspended, or reprimanded.
- A termination that would not ordinarily be characterized as high risk may warrant such a classification if the employee being terminated is also under severe financial pressures, such as undergoing a foreclosure.
Retailers also need to critically review their past handling of a problem worker prior to his or her dismissal or discipline, according to a former workplace violence specialist for the North Carolina Office of State Personnel.
If a worker has been allowed to get away with aggressive behavior in the past—something companies find difficult to acknowledge—that worker is more likely to react aggressively on the occasion of negative news. “People who got away with inappropriate behavior, who got a slap on the wrist time and again until it escalates to where you are forced to address it, feel entitled to any behavior in the same way a bully does,” said Sem. “They can be hostile and respond violently when you finally try to put your foot down.”
Finally, retailers should recognize that long-term employees may actually present a greater threat in the wake of a job termination. Studies show that employees with many years in a job are more likely to react violently to a perceived unfairness, such as being fired or passed over for promotion, than employees with just a year or two with a company. For example, Gary Martin, the Aurora, IL, shooter, was a 15-year veteran of the Henry Pratt Company. The more value an employee attaches to the job, the more stressful he or she finds a disruption in job status.
While it is wise for companies to conduct careful reviews of employee records and to interview supervisors to gauge the potential for violence, there may be no red flags in some situations that turn violent. Every time an employee is fired, even in cases when the termination is expected to go smoothly, stores should follow relevant security recommendations. Sometimes the employee termination process may demand an extra security presence, but all bad news delivered to employees in the work setting should be recognized as high-risk situations.
Moreover, the threat from violence associated with a job termination does not end on the day of discharge. According to one workplace study, the mean length of time for acts of workplace violence following termination is six months, as resentment toward the previous employer often intensifies when a fired employee can’t find new employment.
Recommended Security Procedures for the Employee Termination Process
The mechanics of a termination—location, time, and so on—can minimize risk by removing the opportunity for violence. Security leaders should help their retail organizations to develop a written policy on how to conduct a layoff or a job termination, including the identification of all individuals who need to be notified in advance of the event.
It is possible for store managers, the HR department, security, and legal departments to find themselves at cross-purposes, say experts, which makes a cross-disciplinary, team-based solutions the most appropriate avenue to pursue.
Training supervisors in workplace violence prevention is critical. Although supervisors should not typically fire employees directly, they are in the best position to assess the violence potential of individuals prior to termination. If supervisors are well trained in the warning signs exhibited by potentially violent employees, they can act as a vital security asset by recommending when a store needs to take extraordinary security precautions during a dismissal.
Supervisors may also need to occasionally deliver other types of unwanted news to employees, making it important that they have the skills to do so effectively.
The entire employee termination process should last no longer than fifteen minutes, and a difficult termination should be as brief as possible.
Notification of the firing should be immediate, rather than slowly building up to the news, and the dismissal should be direct and leave no room for confusion.
To expedite the process, all the materials necessary to complete the termination process should be at hand, including a written explanation of any severance benefits or counseling or out-placement services and the name of the specific manager with whom the worker must make any necessary future contact.
It’s important to never take a break during a job termination, say experts. There have been cases in which employees have asked for a break during a firing and gone to their desk or vehicle to retrieve a gun.
If it is the conclusion of a threat assessment that a specific firing is high risk, experts suggest that an employer should consider the following security measures:
- Watch for the worker’s arrival on the day of termination to see if he or she might be bringing a weapon into the workplace. Often, when a fired worker goes on a shooting rampage immediately following being fired, they suspected the news was coming. For a high-risk termination in which this is a possibility, organizations should consider hiring an off-duty officer to be present or holding the meeting off-site.
- Have security staff stay with an employee you believe might be dangerous until he or she leaves the premises. Only use quality officers for this detail, ones whom you trust to handle the dismissal quickly and smoothly without unnecessarily confronting or humiliating the exiting employee.
- If firing an individual for behavioral problems, position security staff in or just outside the room.
- If the employee being terminated has previously issued threats of violence, a protection team of security professionals in plain clothes should be available during the termination. They should also remain onsite for a reasonable period of time to ensure that the individual does not return.
- Consider soliciting help from local law enforcement during any high-risk employee termination process.