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Employee Termination and Workplace Violence

Big problem! I'm a supervisor in a small steel fabrication company. I've been in this job for a little less than a year and came to this company straight out of college. For several months, one employee continued to give me problems. He came to work late at least one day every week, made no effort to meet daily quotas, and even though we gave him suggestions for improvement in the last performance evaluation, had done nothing to improve. I had given him both verbal and written warnings complete with guidance and counseling. I suggested to my boss that we let him go. He said to go ahead with termination.

Here's where things went terribly wrong. I stopped this fellow on the floor and informed him that I had to let him go. I explained all of the reasoning and reviewed all of the disciplinary steps leading to this termination. I did not raise my voice or criticize him. I simply explained all of the reasons and then told him that he could finish out the day and we would have his paycheck at the end of the day.

He was visibly upset. The next thing I new, he was screaming in my face and threatening violence. I tried to calm him down and even let him know that I felt badly for having to fire him. I've never had to terminate anyone before. I hate having to do so but there really wasn't any choice.

He began throwing tools and equipment. One worker tried to calm him down but in doing so, got punched in the face! This had gone from bad to much worse. We don't have security. As I said it is a fairly small shop, less than 20 hourly employees. At this point the other employees steered away from him. My boss happened to see this and called the police. He then came out to the floor and told this individual that the police were on the way. The man turned his anger to my boss. He hit him twice then came toward me. He said "we aren't done yet! I'm coming for you [name omitted]". He then left the building. We were all shaken but I figured the police would find him, take him in, and that eventually he would calm down. It gets worse though. We filed a report for the police but somehow the man had avoided the police all day.

When I came home, he was in my driveway. I did call the police again from my cell but this didn't help much. He came to the car and I cracked my window to tell him they were on the way. Stupid me had put the car in park and when I did this the door locks disengaged. He pulled me out of the car and gave me the beating of my life!

He has done jail time for this and we've done all we can to avoid getting tons of publicity about this. The owner thought it would reflect badly on the business. But, how can things like this be avoided? Security wouldn't have helped much because they can't exactly follow me home from work! What should I do differently if I find myself in a position of having to fire someone again?

Submission June, 2006: Posted with consent

Tactful termination and training

Thank you for submitting the question. Wow! That's what I call a tough day at the office! But your story is not a rarity. These things happen more often than many think; maybe not to this extreme, but it does happen unfortunately.

One thing that I have always found interesting is that college students studying management and leadership are not provided a course on "terminating employees". It is not something that universities would like to be associated with. Therefore, many college graduates are not educated on what to do when leadership fails, and it is a leadership failing when we lose an employee. But that is for another article.

I am glad to hear that you did practice progressive discipline (critical in any organization) and that you provide opportunities for him to correct the behavior. So, it does sound like termination was justified.

But how do we fire someone when it is the only remaining option? I'd like to point out a few things that should have been done differently. Never discipline or fire an employee publicly. Find a private office. This alone will reduce the chances of such a bad scene. Being humiliated publicly might have been the reason for the violence. If not the reason, absolutely a contributing factor.

Through experience and also the advice of a professor while I was studying leadership in college I have learned to use the "bad guy - good guy" approach. Sit the person down in the private office. Offer them a soda or a cup of coffee. Then proceed to give them the bad news tactfully and with a bit of sympathy; not too sympathetic however because they need to know that the decision is firm. Without hesitation, tell the person that even though they were not a good fit in this company that you don't want them to be without means for providing for themselves and their family if applicable. Offer to make a few calls to help them find work. After all, simply because they have not worked out in your organization does not necessarily mean the person is a "bad person" or unworthy of a job. Offer to help them find a new job.

Also, if at all possible, employees should be given reasonable severance. Many people live week to week. No one, regardless of performance in your organization deserves to go without money for the bare necessities. If the person is nearing retirement age, consider an early retirement package.

As part of your offer to help them find work, ask them to come back in a couple of days to discuss possible job openings in the area. Make a few calls for them if they are willing to accept your help.

Allowing them to finish the day is not always a good idea. Even if you have played the bad guy - good guy routine and the person appears calm, once the termination really starts to sink in, trouble may ensue.

Termination is not a pleasant experience for anyone, especially the individual being fired. But there are ways to reduce the chances of violence. I would also suggest training for all personnel that are responsible for delivering the bad news to employees. For example, if supervisors, such as yourself, had gone through formal training that consisted of numerous role-playing exercises this event may not have occurred. If you wish, we can discuss the possibility of training with your management staff. We actually include this as part of our leadership development training program. Given recent events, your management personnel might be interested in this type of training. If so, have them contact us.

If they are not interested in training at this point, I do recommend that you give some serious thought to the bad guy - good guy approach. It can be very helpful

Thanks for submitting the question. I feel it is a very important issue that can even save lives, as people are occasionally shot in the workplace by disgruntled employees following a badly handled termination.

Please contact us if you need further assistance.



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