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Manage Risks When Terminating an Employee

Terminating or disciplining an employee is fraught with legal, compliance and safety issues. In the worst case scenario, violence can occur. 

When workplace “violence comes from an employee or someone close to an employee, there is a much greater chance that some warning sign will have reached the employer in the form of observable behavior. That knowledge, along with the appropriate prevention programs, can at the very least mitigate the potential for violence or prevent it altogether.”

— The FBI
in its publication
Workplace Violence

Although the vast majority of employee interactions do not result in violence, the potential is there.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to predict with certainty how an employee will react to bad news such as a sub-standard performance review or termination. However, there are steps that your organization can take to manage the risks associated with delivering bad news.

Treat employees with dignity and respect. Whether employees are being advised that they are not meeting expectations, or they are being terminated, they should always be treated with dignity and respect. The golden rule should be “do unto others as you would have done to you.”

Provide just the facts. To ensure clarity of communication, it is extremely important to deliver only the facts that are important for the employee to hear. Before meeting with an employee, prepare a script or list of bullet points to be covered during the discussion. While adding humor or information that is not pertinent to the discussion at hand may help managers overcome their nerves, rarely does it help employees accept bad news more readily. Making light of the situation can make it worse.

Facilitate a smooth transition. Depending on the size and structure of your company, it may be appropriate to have a representative of Human Resources present to handle the discussion regarding benefits that the employee may be eligible for in the event of termination. Having an HR representative observe the conversation first hand can also help reduce the probability that the employee will file a complaint regarding how the meeting was conducted.

Put details in writing. Before an employee can be counseled, disciplined or terminated, it is crucial that the pertinent information has been documented — and where appropriate — shared with the employee. For example, if the employee has failed to meet expectations over a six-month period, each instance where performance was below par should be documented and shared with the employee as soon as the circumstances are justified in doing so.

Removing the element of surprise from discussions regarding performance can help reduce the chances that the employee will act aggressively. Alternatively, if an employee is to be terminated, the reasons for doing so should be clearly documented in the event the individual informally or formally challenges the decision.

Remember that cooler heads must prevail. It is not unusual for employees who are the subject of discipline or termination to act in an emotional manner. If they react in an aggressive or hostile manner, it is important to remain calm despite tension in the room. Responding to an employee’s emotions in kind will likely escalate the situation.

Have a response plan in place. Before an employee receives bad news, take the time to assess their potential reaction. Often, an employee’s immediate supervisor or manager will be able to offer insight into the employee’s behavior to date, which may help determine how the employee may react.

According to the FBI, these are some risk factors associated with potential violence:

  • Personality conflicts (between co-workers or with supervisors).
  • Drug or alcohol use, especially on the job.
  • A grudge over a real or imagined grievance.
  • Personal problems such as the breakup of a marriage, financial or legal problems.
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism and a hostile attitude.
  • Increasing belligerence and outbursts of anger.
  • Ominous specific threats, including suicide and homicide.
  • Acquisition or fascination with weapons and bringing weapons to a work site.
  • A preoccupation with violent themes.
  • Extreme disorganization.
  • Tendency to blame others for problems.
  • Past convictions for violent crimes.

If you think there is a high probability that the employee will respond in an angry or physical manner, consider having a member of your company’s corporate security function on hand to assist as needed. Alternatively, it may be necessary to hire one or more security professionals to extract the employee, if a confrontation looks like it could turn violent.

Don’t default to e-mail. Although it is far less confrontational, notifying an employee of a performance issue via e-mail rarely makes sense. Once an e-mail is sent, the sender has no control over where it might end up. Further, it is impossible to infer tone of voice from an e-mail, which in turn leaves the employee to add their own “voice track” to what may well be a well intentioned communication. The result can be a complete misinterpretation.

Have an employee exit plan. If employees are terminated, it is important that their opportunity to sabotage company operations is limited. As soon as an employee is notified that he or she is being terminated, e-mail and network access should ideally be cut off. If that is not feasible, access should be closely monitored for attempts to destroy or steal company data. In the event the employee is allowed to return to his or her desk to remove personal items, consider having a member of management present to verify that the employee does not remove company assets. If access to your company’s facility is controlled by access cards, make sure that as soon as the employee is escorted off the premise that access is revoked. Consider changing locks if you think it’s necessary.

Remember: Disciplining or terminating an employee is not about the supervisor who is taking the action. It should be about the employee receiving the information. How the employee will react is unpredictable, yet the steps noted above can help your organization prepare in the event that an employee decides to act out in physical or intimidating manner. Your HR advisor and attorney can provide more information about how to carry out terminations.