Preventing Violence in Employee Terminations

disgruntled employee

The shooting last month inside a Tennessee Kroger could have been far worse if store employees did not follow their “run, hide, fight” training, with several employees taking shelter in freezers and locking themselves in offices. Still, the event did end tragically, with one dead and 14 wounded. In all, the UK man shot 10 employees and five customers before killing himself.

The motive was as common as it gets: Earlier in the day a third-party vendor who was working inside of the Kroger was asked to leave his job before opening fire, according to a statement by the Collierville Police Department. While the incident is sure to go through an extensive investigation to see what might be learned, the triggering event is a known risk.

When a worker turns a gun on a coworker, the odds are nearly 50 percent that it’s because they received a layoff notice, a demotion, or a pay cut, or suffered some other negative work-related event. In April, for example, a Stop & Shop employee in Long Island shot his manager after disagreeing about a store transfer.

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Studies show the risk of violence is particularly acute when an adverse employment action occurs to individuals who:

  • Tend to blame others for their own deficiencies,
  • Possess a small social support network, and
  • Place extraordinary emphasis on their job.

Advice from Experts

To discourage these occurrences, workplace violence experts promote a range of actions, including providing training to managers and supervisors who deliver unwelcome news. Anyone who is charged with denying a worker a promotion or delivering a deficient performance review should be given instruction on how to handle those situations in a manner that reduces the possibility that the employee will respond violently.

Another common point of advice is to conduct a threat assessment. Prior to delivering unwelcome news to an employee, organizations should spend sufficient time reviewing the individual’s employment history to look for signs that special security measures might be necessary, keeping in mind:

  • Employees with a history of violence or threats represent a higher risk, and termination of such employees should follow strict security measures.
  • If the employee’s record shows they have a history of filing grievances or lawsuits, companies should also be on high alert, as studies show that such individuals pose a greater risk of future violence.
  • Though 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 an elevated 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.

Organizations also need to critically review how they’ve managed a problem worker prior to their dismissal or discipline. 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 to negative news.

The Role for Investigators

Comprehensive threat assessments can be time-consuming, but simple online investigations can look inside the lives and minds of problem workers and allow investigators to quickly get an idea whether they pose a legitimate threat of violence. One expert suggested that, by using the right tools in the right way, an investigator can usually gain a basic picture of the situation in as little as 15 minutes.

“It’s absolutely amazing how much information is sitting out there on the web,” said Bruce Anderson, CEO of Reputation Defense Online, a cyber investigation and reputation defense firm, during an online seminar several years ago about conducting online threat assessments in employee terminations. He added that even when individuals try to conduct online activity anonymously, there is typically a way to uncover the information you want to know.

Investigations will often focus on what is going on in an individual’s life that could affect how they behave. While noting that legal issues should be a consideration in investigations, experts say information found online can point to an individual who may feel like their world is closing in on them — information such as a recent bankruptcy filing, divorce notice, or restraining order.

Basic online investigations are also helpful in monitoring fired workers, to see if they are saying or acting in ways that suggests a growing threat. Frequent searches can track workers in the hot period two to three weeks after a worker is fired, and periodic on-going monitoring can indicate if the worker appears to be having problems adjusting. Even a casual online social media search can provide peace of mind by supplying evidence that an ex-employee found new employment, got married, took an exciting vacation, or made posts online indicating that they’ve successfully moved on with their life.

It may also be useful to identify investigative roles, said expert panelists, because human resources personnel and security investigators often have different agendas in threat assessment investigations that must be reconciled — HR may be interested in information that justifies an employment decision, while an investigator may want to know if the individual is dangerous and poses a potential threat. Because agendas may be different, it can be helpful to establish clarity around what information is being sought during online investigations, and by whom.

Conflicts between Supervisors and Security

There is another conflict that can arise between supervisors and security: When workers seem troubled or aggressive and are making others feel uncomfortable, managers can be quick to rid themselves of the problem to get their department running smoothly again. But from a security point of view, a quick termination may be unwise if it’s likely to trigger a violent response.

Subconsciously, supervisors can fail to communicate potential warning signs to avoid slowing down a termination process. As a result, some experts suggest that it may be helpful to have a policy of requiring all employee terminations, without exception, to include notification to a security representative. This can help a company ensure that it is making a fact-driven decision in classifying whether an upcoming firing is an at-risk termination and prevent the possibility of a termination being pushed through for the sake of expediency.

While it may be wise for retail organizations to conduct careful reviews of employee records and to interview supervisors to gauge the potential for violence, there will be no red flags in some cases. As such, all terminations — even ones that are expected to go smoothly — should follow established store procedures on where the news is delivered, when, by whom, and who should be notified in advance.

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