Anticipating Workplace Violence at Termination

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Every year, millions of American workers report having been victims of workplace violence. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, homicides accounted for 10 percent of all fatal occupational injuries in the United States in 2016. There were 500 workplace homicides in 2016, an increase of 83 cases from 2015. The 2016 total was the highest since 2010. Of the workplace homicides in 2016, 409 (82 percent) were homicides to men and 91 (18 percent) were homicides to women. Homicides represented 24 percent of fatal occupational injuries to women in 2016 compared with 9 percent of fatal occupational injuries to men.

Violence is the third leading cause for healthcare workers, and employees in professional and business services like education, law and media.


One of the most important components of a great workplace violence prevention program is to have processes and procedures – crafted for and known by everyone in your organization – for terminating any employee. This is especially important in the case of termination or separation of a potentially violent employee.

A potentially violent employee termination can often – and should be – the end result of a very careful process that has involved several members of your internal workplace violence prevention team or your threat management team or your behavioral management team. Whatever you call that team, this is not an activity that occurs as a result of someone saying, “I’ve had enough, this person’s gotta’ go.”

It may be a lengthy process of planning and careful thought in order to assure that this termination is done in a way that is representative of the thought leadership on your assigned team. Your team may be made up of people from HR, Legal, Security and someone from executive management. If you are a very small company, and one person is all of those persons – an outside consulting firm specializing in behavioral screening, workplace violence and employment transitions is probably a good idea to have as a key member of the team.

Once the team identifies a behavioral issue that is not correctable, the team must work together to put a plan in place for formal termination. Leading up to the termination meeting, there may be a good deal of oversight, monitoring and documentation; you may also monitor social media and other forms of information. Add to the documentation any anonymous reporting that comes in through the organization’s formal AR tool, along with other, standard performance improvement plans (PIP).

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) advises:

  • Is there an actual performance or behavioral issue that can be substantiated? Ask the manager to create a list of the performance deficiencies, including dates, specific data or detailed explanations, and any previous guidance given to the employee. Review the most recent performance appraisal to see if the issue is new or ongoing. Has the manager met expectations to prevent the need for a PIP?
  • Do you feel the manager is committed to helping the employee succeed, or is his or her intention focused on terminating the employee? This can be tricky to assess but listen for whether the manager is concerned about the employee and wants to help, or if he or she is at the end of their rope and no longer able to manage the situation. Insecure managers may feel threatened by some employee’s behaviors or may not understand that managing includes supporting and developing employees. If the manager doesn’t want employees to succeed, there is little point in starting a PIP.
  • Is it likely that the issue can be “fixed” through a formal improvement plan? Problems with sales goals, quality ratings, quantity objectives and similar issues may be well-suited to a structured plan that helps identify why the deficiencies occur. Insubordinate and insolent behaviors, on the other hand, might not lend themselves to improvement using the goal-oriented process of a PIP.
  • Does it appear the employee has received proper training to succeed at the task? A leave of absence or other time off may have resulted in missed training or informative meetings that were not later made available to the employee. Additional training may be warranted to correct the oversight.
  • Is there a known personal issue that may be affecting the employee’s performance? When personal difficulties strike, employees may have a dip in performance that employers often accommodate. If the reasonable time frame for accommodation has ended, a PIP may serve to help a capable employee get refocused and back on track.

As the team moves forward with the decision to terminate, it must be a well-thought, planned, documented and careful process.

Do You Anticipate Violence?

Depending upon previous, documented behaviors observed, the team may or may not anticipate a challenging or violent termination event. Planning however, is for any eventuality because we want to make sure that the people within the organization are safe and are going to be safe in the future. The team should have a set of well-developed and clearly articulated processes – processes that can be implemented when there could be a potential for violence. Think through all scenarios and steps, before implementation. Practice and test the plans.

If the possibility of a dangerous termination is anticipated, the team is practiced, informed, and collaborative and can then take the proper steps to ensure that the people in the immediate meeting are going to be safe, and other people within the facility, in the building, on the property, are going to be safe as well.

The process could – as an example – include moving any people that are potentially a target of aggression off-site or to a safe and secure area; placing additional security on-site the day of the termination and thereafter; calling in additional security resources to protect everyone involved. Each situation is going to have elements that are unique to that situation; each situation is going to require its own set of unique investigative documentation and its own solution to mitigate any escalation.

Every Organization Needs to Address Workplace Violence

Managers and safety professionals at every workplace should develop a policy on violence that includes:

 Know the Warning Signs

People commit violence because of any number of reasons: revenge, robbery or ideology – with or without a component of mental illness. While there is no way to predict an attack, you can be aware of behaviors in coworkers that might signal future violence.  These may include:

  • Excessive use of alcohol or drugs
  • Unexplained absenteeism, change in behavior or decline in job performance
  • Depression, withdrawal or suicidal comments
  • Resistance to changes at work or persistent complaining about unfair treatment
  • Violation of company policies
  • Emotional responses to criticism, mood swings
  • Paranoia
  • Difficulty getting along with others
  • Direct threats of self-harm or harm to others
  • Injustice collection
  • Personal life stress
  • Overreaction to changes
  • Obsession or interest in attacks
  • Anger issues
  • Access to weapons
  • Evidence of radicalization
  • Gathering weapons and ammo
  • Increased target practicing
  • Recent real or perceived loss
  • History of stalking or harassment
  • Grooming changes
  • Isolation
  • Leakage or Veiled Threats

Post-termination Care

Sadly, many incidents of workplace violence occur long after a termination event, catching everyone by surprise. Consider using outplacement or third-party services to further separate the employee from the company. If a recently separated employee is having trouble processing the separation; if they are angry and need to vent, let them be angry and vent to an objective outplacement professional whose job it is to diffuse the anger and refocus the separated individual.

It is well-worth the resource expense if it helps that employee transition from your organization to a new beginning. They need to be able to look forward, not backward, and that is specifically what the outplacement consultant is trained to do.

Inform and Communicate Internally

Inform and communicate internally immediately in a respectful, clear and concise manner. We’re not sending a mass email that says, ‘hey, Joe’s gone everybody’ however, people need to know if Joe returns, he is not allowed in the building. If your front door is in a strip mall area, an industrial park type of a shop front – and you need to lock the front door, lock the front door and follow careful security protocols. Protect the person that is at that front door; inform them of the situation, potential risk and replace them with a trained security professional if needed.

Closing thoughts

We recently surveyed more than 100 participants for an upcoming violence prevention initiative, and almost 20% of respondents reported there had been a potential issue of workplace violence in their workplace that was prevented, however more than 50% of those same respondents reported they had not updated workplace violence programs in the past year (or didn’t know) and had no system for behavioral identification and documentation in place.

That has to change.

The workplace violence solution is behavioral observation and careful, respectful treatment of challenging situations. The best solution is in understanding behavior, not adding modalities to limit casualties. When asked, every organization states, “we have something.” A vague “Something” is not enough.

We must respond when behavioral warning signs first arise before the violent act occurs. Without this change, we will continue to see more violence and loss of life in our workplaces. No one wants to call a family and share that their loved one is not coming home today.

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