4 Supervisor Strategies for Dealing with Negative & Disgruntled Employees

At the heart of nearly every consulting assignment is some kind of disgruntled employee.

Here’s a seemingly straightforward question – If you don’t like the company; don’t like your boss; and you don’t like your co-workers why would you stay in a job? I get that it is difficult to find another position but that is no reason to stay and torture everyone around you. We work long hours. You are wasting our time!

The problem with the question is that it implies that the disgruntled employee could be happy in the right workplace. The answer may be that some folks are most comfortable working where they are free to nitpick and complain. Perhaps they are just negative people. Maybe they are afraid to be held accountable so they talk about all the ways in which their job is too difficult or even impossible to perform successfully.

This negative view can catch on with other employees – left unchallenged, it grows over time. Eventually, even motivated workers may believe that the work actually is impossible to do successfully. Just how negative things may get depends upon the supervisor’s skill and work approach. Is the supervisor confident and skilled in verbal confrontation when the disgruntled employee brings their fatalistic view to the staff meeting? Does the supervisor have the skill to set boundaries on negative, de-motivating language this employee uses to discourage coworkers?

It’s the supervisor’s job to engage all the employees in their group but some are more challenging that others. Here are some strategies that might work for you.

Strategies to minimize the damage of persuasive, negative employees

  1. Know your employee group: Employees in a given department can be divided into three basic groups – employees who want the supervisor to silence the negative employee, employees who side with the negative employee and undecided folks who just want to do their work. Strategy one is to cultivate the positive view of those employees who want to work toward company goals. This group can help to confront and refute the negative view of every issue. Engaging them can help to prevent an us/them dynamic between the boss and the employee group.
  2. Use your verbal skills: Develop verbal skills to refute negative comments on the spot. When an employee hijacks staff meetings and turns the discussion to fatalism and negativity, stop the conversation and ask if everyone feels the same way. Then encourage those with a different view to speak up. Speak directly and clearly to the negativism: “It seems like you often take a negative perspective in these discussions. This makes it difficult for me to stay motivated at times. I am thinking it creates unnecessary pressure on your peers.” Later, take the negative employee aside and let them know that his/her comments are negatively effecting the group’s ability to successfully meet its goals. If your company offers incentive awards, tie the negative talk to making it difficult to achieve the incentive awards. More drastic steps to take if these strategies don’t work are to exclude the employee from occasional staff meetings in which the activity is brain storming and creative problem solving.
  3. Address complaint content: Take action to resolve any of the complaint based in reality. If a complaint is – procedures are difficult, address that. If the complaint is – customers are too difficult, address strategies to deal with difficult customers. Finally, if complaints are – about other employees or departments, address these head on. When there are problems in other departments work on those with other supervisors. If you discover that complaints are unfounded, close the loop with your group and let them know the matter is put to rest. “We’re moving on.”
  4. Termination: If and when the negative employee’s pessimism and fatalistic view is not minimized by interventions, consider counseling the employee out of the company. Even if the employee is technically competent the fact that he/she is interfering with the positive performance and full engagement of the department is reason enough for termination. The success of this strategy depends upon getting good advice and support from either your HR representative  or consultant. They can help you assemble the facts that support a sound termination process.

Younger workers represent an increasing proportion of people in the workforce. They tend to have high expectations for being treated well. I hope there will be less patience negative coworkers behavior, over time. It’s de-motivating and distracting. Savvy business managers won’t tolerate it. Gossip and negativity detract from the company’s efficient movement toward strategic goals. Negativity interferes with employee engagement, motivation and loyalty – factors associated with company profitability. It certainly doesn’t promote personal accountability or healthy communication.Finally, happy and engaged employees shouldn’t have to put up with it.

When delivering performance consequences with disgruntled employees you might layout their choices like this: “We welcome you to improve/refrain from these behaviors, stay, and help us succeed. Or, you can agree to disagree and move to another company. What you can’t do, is stay and gripe.”

Sometimes company leadership needs encouragement and support to take a firm stand with these employees. I often reference supervisory burn-out as a consequence of allowing a staff member to stay and gripe. When a supervisor becomes worn down by such an employee it is appropriate to let the negative employee understand that this is one more way in which they interfere with the achievement of company goals. Make sure supervisors get the support they need to maintain attention and motivation to intervene with negative employees. It is wonderful to watch when a supervisor becomes empowered to make a shift and take control over their work group – rewarding for the company and great for the positive employees. After stubbornly negative employees are gone, staff will often approach you with thanks.

(c) Copyright BCSPublishing 2013 all rights reserved

Top Twelve “People” Rules of Successful Managers

The benefit of long experience is the opportunity to make management mistakes and learn how not to repeat them. Here are some of the basic principles guiding successful managers:

  1. Communicate: Get your group together periodically and provide them with helpful information about their work, the company and upcoming events. Well informed staff are more engaged. Staff meetings are for two-way communication – from your staff to you and from you to them. Don’t dominate the meeting or the agenda.
  2. Listen: Make sure your staff have a regular, private opportunity to speak with you. Listen carefully to what’s important to them. This allows them to discuss matters with you that they don’t want to discuss in front of others. Create a respectful, calm atmosphere – don’t take phone calls or interrupt them.
  3. Motivate: Get to know what is important to each team member –  what they’re passionate about and where they want their career to go. Consider these motivators when asking them to strive to meet goals. Promote successful staff from within.
  4. Strategize: When you’re asking staff to do something difficult or something they object to, connect the request to the achievement of company end results. While respecting their position, do not compromise when it’s important or fundamental.
  5. Be fair: Settle staff disputes fairly. Don’t favor one person over another; stick to facts; and consider both company and employee needs consistently. You can’t be good friends with those you supervise. You can’t.
  6. Praise: Always extend credit to those who have contributed to positive results and make sure others know what they contributed. Be specific in what you like about their positive results.
  7. Extend leeway: Offer staff increasing opportunities to take reasonable risks as they do well. When there is a misstep, don’t be over-critical or over react. Help them to understand that you need to increase supervision for a while until confidence is restored. They will be anxious to win your trust and demonstrate competence.
  8. Advocate: Make sure staff have what they need to be successful and are fairly treated by others – attend to potential bullies within their own ranks. Don’t allow disrespectful treatment to go unresolved.
  9. Confront: Do not ignore performance issues. Make sure you have all the facts before you speak with the individual and allow them the opportunity to respond or explain. Take the time to decide what course of action will be fair and consistent with other similar situations.
  10. Consequence: Allow reasonable and natural consequences to end up where they belong. When you protect a poor performer from the consequences of their actions, it can confuse people. Make the “punishment” fit the “crime.” If the performance problem is fundamental, involves ethics or dishonesty the performance counseling should rise to a level of written warning, suspension or probation. Don’t nit-pick: think about letting small missteps go unless they accumulate or repeat.
  11. Admit: If you aren’t quick on your feet, don’t be afraid to say, “I’m not sure. I need some time to consider my answer,” when confronted by surprising or controversial assertions.
  12. Promise carefully: Never make promises you can’t keep and remember that some promises you make as a supervisor bind the company to make good on those promises.

(c) Copyright BCSPublishing 2013 all rights reserved.

6 Difficult Employee Types: Which are most toxic?

For HR professionals, understanding the source of difficult employee behavior is key to finding the most effective intervention. This article describes tactics and relative toxicity of six difficult employee types:

  • Gossip
  • Clearinghouse
  • Emotional Victim
  • Emotional Venter
  • Negative
  • Strategic/Toxic

Gossip

Gossipers are highly social and are often friendly and well-meaning, but they become difficult by either ignoring work duties or distracting coworkers from theirs. Gossipers are likely to be highly connected to others through social media. They are verbally adept and seem to have a need to control social information in the workplace; if smart, they will outmatch their fellow employees. They can be immature relative to professional sense but skilled at social information management. Workplace social information may include

  • who is dating whom,
  • coworkers’ financial situations,
  • where people live,
  • coworkers’ clothes/appearance, and
  • who is aligned with whom power-wise in the department.

A Gossiper’s positive skills may include party planning or developing employee events since he/she probably knows who will like which kind of activities.

Tactics: The Gossiper collects (banks) social information and uses (lends) it to his/her advantage by spreading gossip or repeating rumors. These employees are likely to align with those who have power because they may be less politically savvy in today’s workplace. Gossipers use a variety of tactics against others. One of the clever but evil manipulation tactics invented by seventh graders is used in the workplace. It is called negative contracting and involves secret agreements to favor this person and marginalize that person. A similar juvenile tactic is what I call the third-party ambush. This is when employee 1 and 2 are aligned. Employee 2 goes to employee 3 (the target) and sets up a negative discussion about employee 1. Employee 2 then runs back to employee 1 and recounts all the unpleasant things employee 3 said. Employee 3 is victimized— caught by naively accepting the discussion with employee 2 at face value. I have seen this strategy both employed against my daughter when she was 12 and against adults in a professional setting. Being the target of this tactic is an event the most secure individual will remember and work to avoid in the future.

Toxic? The Gossiper can create power through social manipulation. When aligned with a truly Toxic employee, this can greatly enhance the power of the Toxic one, lending strategies of marginalization and so forth (see below).

 Clearinghouse

The Clearinghouse employee is primarily concerned with predictability and control. This employee is most comfortable when he/she has an information control system followed consistently by coworkers. The need to control information may come from perfectionism or may be masking fears about their worth to the company. If the former, the key factor is how far he/she will go to control the flow of technical or business information. Positions that might be a positive fit for a Clearinghouse – forms technician or some type of assignment tracker.

Tactics: The Clearinghouse employee uses essential business information to demonstrate his/her power over others. They may withhold information or criticize those who complain or try to change the information flow.

Toxic? This employee can be toxic if he/she acts up and retaliates against coworkers who grumble or seek to change the system. Another way the Clearinghouse employee can be toxic is when the information he/she controls is essential for other departments or colleagues to perform well. If financial success or quality customer relations is dependent upon timely information exchange, the employee who controls information can wreak havoc. Toxic strategies can include marginalizing unpopular coworkers and facilitating information flow to “allies of the moment.”

Emotional Victim

Emotional Victims are insecure individuals who are afraid their work isn’t up to par, have low self-esteem, or are fearful people don’t like them. I find that this kind of difficult employee is not emotionally equipped for the normal give and take of today’s workplace. They can become overly wounded by legitimate, mundane feedback or normal supervisory boundary setting.

Tactics: Some of the problematic behaviors Emotional Victims use in the workplace are crying, hysterics and promoting a view of those who critique their work as bullies. Because they don’t tolerate negative feedback well, they will use diversionary tactics to neutralize “critical” supervisors. They may leave out certain story details to support a narrative of themselves as “victim” and the supervisor as unfair.

Toxic? Whether or not Emotional Victims are toxic depends on how far they are willing to go to make themselves seem like victims. Depending on the level of fear or insecurity, these employees ally with more powerful Toxic employees to inoculate themselves from critical feedback. Initially, coworkers may rush to their defense but over time their peers may grow tired of the drama. At the extreme, their crying and hysterics over time can compel supervisors to avoid holding them accountable. Supervisors may contemplate serious intervention such as performance counseling or termination but often fail to follow through for fear of provoking an episode.

 Emotional Venter

Emotional Venters are emotionally unsophisticated— indiscriminately venting their feelings. This is a blunt instrument that does not necessarily include devious or negative intent. These employees can be insecure, fretful, and even panicky. The problem is that they don’t seem to be able to control the outward expression of these feelings in the work setting. I find that these folks are not self-aware and may not realize how extreme they get in the heat of the moment. Perhaps an Emotional Venter might be a good fit for an army sergeant, though even there one needs to have a good command of the effect of emotional venting on others!

Tactics: The Venter often yells, criticizes, blames and shames others when he/she is anxious. These situations can develop if the Emotional Venter gets caught making a mistake or if something goes wrong with workflow. He/she typically vents emotions and then gets over the issue and moves on.

Toxic? Whether or not the Emotional Venter is toxic or how toxic he/she might become depends on the degree of offense and trauma to others. The louder and more aggressive their language, the more toxic they become. The nature of their toxicity manifests in coworker fears that evolve into attempts to avoid becoming targets. Sensitive employees are more harmed by these outbursts and can become traumatized. Venters discharge their emotions and move on; meanwhile the roadside is littered with victims. Finally, this type of behavior expressed toward important clients may have a direct and negative effect on company financial success and/or customer service goals.

Negative  

The Negative employee has a pessimistic view of the world, the company and his/her prospect within the company. They tend to have a less trusting view of the company (and institutions in general) than the average person and therefore can be somewhat fretful. Because of their glass-half-empty take on life, Negative employees diminish the positive attitudes of others.

Tactics: Negative employees are naturally suspicious and have a knack for reframing positive company results or initiatives into a complaint with examples and cleverly crafted evidence. Coworkers often walk away confused about how a positive event can be twisted into a threat or disgruntlement. Negative employees are unhappy with the company and tend to work against its attempt to build morale and a positive culture.

Toxic? Negativism isn’t by itself toxic. However, when a Negative employee possesses strong verbal skills and high intelligence, his/her arguments for a pessimistic sense of the world can make it exhausting for others to support positivism. The negative talk, unhappiness with the company and general pessimism makes the Negative employee very difficult to motivate or shift. Fortunately, however, the Negative employee is sometimes eventually neutralized when coworkers grow weary of their complaining, unite and write them off as having little objective credibility.

Strategic/Toxic

Strategic/Toxic employees are smooth, smart and strategically controlling. They are often a ringleader for coworkers. The Strategic/Toxic employee is always several steps ahead of others. They are most comfortable when they are seen as favored and special in that the rules don’t apply to them. These folks may experience a high degree of performance success in technical areas. They may even be seen as having good people skills if others are too afraid to confront them. This is more likely to be the case if the company’s performance evaluation system focuses on technical results rather than collaboration and respectful treatment of others. Strategic/Toxic employee power depends upon the manipulation of others and on coworker silence about the techniques to which they are routinely subject.

Tactics: Strategic/Toxic employees are highly skilled manipulators. They use emotional manipulation (creatively making others feel responsible for their missteps), which generally has increasing success over time. Negative contracting, rumors, threats to ruin reputations and subtle intimidation serve to keep coworkers and even supervisors in line. These employees are motivated by personal gain and not company success or a positive work culture. Maintaining the status quo is very important to protect their power base. Another tactic is neutralizing those perceived as threats to retaining power. These “threatening” employees can be stopped by tactics of exploiting their mistakes or making provocative accusations against them to bring positive change to a halt.

Toxic? This group is by definition the most toxic of all the difficult types. The Strategic/Toxic employee has the capacity to create the greatest harm to the company and the most trauma to coworkers and supervisors; they control the company by creating fear. They can hijack the workplace keeping employees busy trying to stay out of the line of fire. Workplace productivity declines rapidly as staff members either choose sides with the Toxic person or lick their wounds with fellow victims. At first it requires a public thrashing for employees to see who has the power. Later, the mere threat of retaliation is sufficient to get coworkers to back off a confrontation and supervisors to refrain from holding them accountable. When the Strategic/Toxic employee is highly technically skilled or of long service, he/she is very difficult to dislodge. Their strategic mindset often leads to alliance with a powerful company leader or a key client. This, in turn results in their freedom to accost coworkers and prevent scrutiny. As a consultant, I am often retained to solve company problems with Strategic/Toxic employees. Successful intervention requires strong-willed leadership and a constituency of positive employees who can unite to shift the culture – definitely not for the faint of heart or inexperienced! Any attempts to diminish their power will be met with resistance and preemptive strikes to neutralize change.

For more information on Toxic employees see collective articles on this topic at: Benoit Blogs on Toxic Employees.

© Copyright BCSPublishing 2012 all rights reserved – sbenoit@benoitconsulting.com

All About Toxic Employees in the Workplace

What motivates Toxic employees? How do Toxic employees control other employees?

Introduction

If you run a business, you’ve likely encountered a “toxic employee.” You hear complaints about or you experience a worker who is mean or abusive. But you hesitate to deal with the employee because he/she might be technically gifted/hard to replace. This article discusses the complicated social dynamics that arise when one or two employees engage in abusive and intimidating behavior. Also covered here is how toxic employees and their tactics harm the business and coworkers.  Toxic employee tactics consolidate and maintain informal power in the workplace and control coworkers for personal gain. This behavior goes against healthy workplace values and conflicts with company goals. Unproductive drama distracts surrounding work units, victimizes workers and prevents the achievement of company goals.

This material addresses a workplace where well-meaning leadership is disengaged or fearful. It does not address a workplace where the prime abuser is the chief executive. When the chief executive is abusive and fails to respond appropriately to employee feedback, employee behavior will become understandably negative in response. In this situation employee acting-out is a natural consequence of poor leadership and requires a special, tailored intervention not precisely covered by this material.

Who are toxic employees?

I have defined “toxic employees” by observing the techniques they use. Looking at what sets them apart from typical employees, toxic employees are motivated by getting and protecting personal gain (power, money, or special status) NOT by achieving company goals. What the company wants of his/her individual performance is of less interest to a toxic employee. He/she typically does not recognize a duty to an overriding principle of ethics or respectful treatment of others. Finally, relationships with coworkers are not defined by the formal organization structure but are defined by the toxic employee’s own power; coworkers they favor in the moment and coworkers they do not trust.

Toxic employees are not just difficult coworkers.  They plan ahead and use strategies to neutralize supervisors and detractors.  Sometimes they are just protecting their personal power.  Sometimes they are protecting secret misdeeds or malfeasance. Finally, they may be inoculating themselves from performance feedback.

In addition, toxic employees are not just bullies.  A bully punishes, teases and abuses others at work.  This alone is grounds for performance counseling.  Venting emotions inappropriately, yelling and other forms of abuse should not be tolerated in the workplace. When bullies repeatedly target a particular employee, the effects can be devastating. This can and should be stopped by a carefully crafted performance intervention.  I have covered this topic in several other blogs.

Toxic employees use bullying tactics but there’s more. A toxic employee is more deliberate and strategic and more difficult to stop than a straight forward bully. This is because of their clever means of discrediting those who speak up AND dis-empowering supervisors and others who possess the power on paper, to make changes in the workplace.

The problem

I am often engaged to address one employee’s negative workplace performance. Once on site I find the situation is more complex than simply establishing a performance improvement plan for the offending employee. The greater the informal power residing with this one individual, the more likely the employee group around him/her has chosen up sides. Because negative social dynamics become well entrenched, any real solution requires an intervention addressing both the main offender and the surrounding social system.

How this dynamic harms employees

Victimized employees can and do suffer emotional and physical harm such as stress-related illnesses. Employee victims of ongoing workplace abuse and intimidation (bullying) will eventually require support to re-establish healthy boundaries with others even after the offender’s termination. Employees with a good perspective and a desire to support business goals often draw fire from powerful negative employees. Employees who express disapproval of the negative dynamics or who try to resist those dynamics have likely learned who has the power in both subtle and in more overt, public ways. Negative messages from toxic employees to NOT speak up can be so powerful as to render even strong, competent peers unwilling to alert leadership. It is very much worth the effort to retain those who disagree with negative approaches by re-establishing positive supports and rewarding their instincts to speak up. Intervention timing is key.

How this dynamic harms your business

Toxic employees who operate from a negative, abusive perspective and who mistreat fellow workers rarely treat customers with respect. Employees distracted by a work atmosphere of squabbles, choosing up sides and consolidating informal power structures do not perform at their best. This atmosphere serves to preserve the negative dynamics and consistently drains productivity. In addition over time, highly motivated and positive employees who have tried and failed to improve things will move on to other companies and those more comfortable in a negative environment will stay. The longer these dynamics continue the worse the environment generally becomes. All of this combines to distract even high-performing staff from promoting business goals and quality client service delivery. The failure to exercise supervisory power creates a vacuum through which ill-motivated staff can emerge and divert attention from the organization’s goals. It can take years to reverse the behaviors and the effect of the abuse on others.

Informal power structures and dynamics

Today’s workplace is full of unwritten “agreements.” Status quo power structures and informal processes are established over time and become well-entrenched. For example, those with informal power steer their peers away from employees who they see as a threat to their power and can punish those who ignore these warnings with silent treatment and rumors. Eventually, everyone “gets the message” and learns to go along. Disturbing the status quo is met with resistance and dynamics that worsen just before they begin to shift. Those who stand to lose their informal power will up the ante to preserve it. Knowing what to expect along with a well-thought out plan is essential to moving away from abuse and intimidation toward comprehensive positive change.

Ringleader motives

It’s helpful to think about what motivates abusive employees in the workplace. Mistreatment of others comes from a self-centered perspective. It is sometimes constructed to cover personal insecurities or fears. It is generally maladaptive social behavior. This behavior might be learned or may the result of formative trauma. More specific answers are beyond the scope of this material.

  • Acquisition of informal power and control
  • Advancing ones value and position in the organization
  • Decreasing (or neutralizing) another’s value and position in the organization, particularly those seen as a threat – supervisors and other change agents
  • Retaliating against perceived slights by fellow employees

 Control techniques

Ringleaders as toxic employees generally collect information to either withhold or use against targets for maximum advantage.  In addition, they use strategies to prevent complaints about them from getting traction and to weaken the power of others. The foundation of most toxic techniques is a near universal need humans have to be liked by others in the workplace.

Negative contracting is an agreement to keep secrets, look the other way, do something harmful, or spread a rumor about someone else. Contracts are typically a secret agreement between the toxic employee and others with a goal of avoiding consequences or reducing someone’s power.

Emotional manipulation is when a coworker is manipulated into questioning his/her judgment or instincts and controlled to believe the story spun by the toxic employee. Often the appeal is to the target’s sense of responsibility for the feelings of others. Clever manipulators can make anyone feel responsible for what’s gone wrong.

Blaming the victim is using clever manipulation to exploit victim mistakes and attack their credibility. This is done in a manner that shifts focus away from whatever the victim was trying to raise for management attention onto the victim’s “misdeeds.” In some workplaces employees give up trying to get management’s attention because the futility has been demonstrated repeatedly.

Marginalization is the process of ostracizing targets, giving them the silent treatment or withholding information as a way to demonstrate power over others or as punishment for a perceived offense. Depending upon how much the targeted employees want to be liked at work, this can be a very powerful deterrent.

Negative dynamics thrive when . . .

There are certain environments in which negative dynamics are promoted and enhanced and very difficult to shift. This would include those situations where:

Ringleaders are often technically strong . . .

  • Ringleaders often have access to historical information, company lore and information needed by other employees to carry out their assignments
  • Ringleaders are in positions of specialized skill and perceived to be difficult to replace
  • Organization performance evaluations are based upon technical performance results without accountability or demonstrated command of:

 Negative dynamics are more difficult to maintain when . . .

Some workplaces actively promote positive values and respect for one another. In these environments positives are rewarded and negatives are addressed. Tactics that make it difficult for abusive employee strategies to take hold include those where:

  • The organization articulates its vision of a healthy, productive workplace through a code of ethics or set of employee relations values
  • The organization informs staff how it plans to shift and maintain the desired culture with examples of what is positive and what will be discouraged
  • Performance evaluations measure end results AND the demonstration of corporate values in the areas of teamwork, collaboration, corporate ethics and pro-social behavior
  • Supervisors are connected to what’s going on in their areas
  • Supervisors operate as a well-coordinated team with good communication and consistent management techniques
  • Supervisors are well-trained in identifying and responding to negative dynamics
  • Offending employees are cautioned and counseled with escalating consequences
  • Offending employees are eventually moved out of the organization

Strategic plan to shift negative workplace dynamics

Shifting the workplace toward a more healthy and productive environment requires a comprehensive plan and approach that lets employees know where you are going and why. It also requires simultaneous extinguishment of negative behaviors and encouragement/skill building for victims and others.

  1. Establish company or departmental values and a clear code of conduct
  2. Identify the various players and research current dynamics
  3. Plan the intervention carefully
  4. Intervene with the group and then primary offenders
  5. Follow up with the group and offenders, as needed
  6. Carry out legal, sound terminations where needed
  7. Develop recruitment strategies to foster desired work climate
  8. Implement ongoing team-building and employee engagement strategies

© Copyright BCSPublishing 2012 all rights reserved – sbenoit@benoitconsulting.com

Part 3: HR Intervening with a Potentially Violent Employee

Previous articles in this series: Part 1:HR Principles Guiding Workplace Violence Prevention; Part 2: HR Steps to Preventing Workplace Violence

Making the plan

After reviewing an employee’s history, behavior and disclosures, a comprehensive plan for intervening must be developed. It is useful to consider past interventions with this employee as information on how this one will progress.  Review company policies that might apply to this situation and always maintain a respectful and firm posture toward the employee.  The employee who takes the central role in delivering the “bad news” should be a seasoned person with experience in these kind of difficult employee discussions.  It should be someone who is not afraid to set clear boundaries during the discussion and will know when to put a stop to discussions altogether.  A skilled individual can keep a discussion de-escalated and more successful overall.

The reader is cautioned to remember that every intervention must be custom-designed. Only those closest to the discussions know the best course of action.  These general steps may help in your planning:

  • Objectively assess the employee,s background, work history and safety risks
  • Consult an expert or attorney on legal process to ensure the company obligations and employee rights are protected;
  • Create plan for handling the performance conference – location, timing, personnel involved;
  • Ask the authorities and/or security to review the plan and provide feedback;
  • Create a detail schedule of events;
  • Prepare the financials for the employee’s last pay if termination is warranted;
  • Plan out each person’s role in the intervention including the talking points of what is to be conveyed;
  • Consider letting coworkers know that you will be meeting with the potentially dangerous employee or notify them directly after, if warranted;
  • Carefully consider where the employee will go directly after the intervention – escort to locker and off the premises, etc;
  • Provide instructions if the employee is not allowed to contact various employees and inform the employee of who he/she should contact if questions arise post termination;
  • Implement the plan;
  • Follow up with authorities if the employee makes either vague or specific threats to company personnel;
  • Follow up with peers and other workers who might be affected by this employee’s actions or the company intervention;
  • Provide co-workers and supervisors with instructions on what to do if threatened or contacted;
  • Review company security procedures and refresh employee understanding if appropriate.

As always, review and evaluate the intervention outcome, considering what worked well, what did not go well and potential changes to company policies.

Good luck!

(c) copyright BCSPublishing 2012 all rights reserved

Part 2: HR Planning to Prevent Workplace Violence

Previous articles in this series: Part 1:HR Principles Guiding Workplace Violence Prevention

Roles in preventing workplace violence

There are four entities to be considered when developing policies and procedures on the management of potentially violent employees: The individual, the work unit, the company and the community. The company’s role varies regarding these groups. The company has a duty to protect all employees from workplace violence. The company must listen to unit supervisors and co-workers who  disclose information or fears about an employee. The company has a responsibility to have reasonable policies that guide company operations regarding employee violence (see part one of this article). Finally, if a disgruntled employee makes threats to employees, there could be a moral obligation to inform authorities because employees can be at risk both at work and in the community. The nature and clarity of these threats can provide guidance here.

The individual employee

It’s helpful to focus on the individual employee’s history and behavior to determine the risk for violence. Over the years, I have found that looking at employee behavior overall, not just one or two incidents, is key to accurately assessing the potential for violence. But first, what are the basic emotional skills that every employee must have for reasonable chance of success?

Mental and emotional basics for every employee

Does the employee have sufficient emotional health and maturity for the workplace? Recruitment interviews and reference checks should reveals whether there are red flags in any of these areas.

  • Reasonable self-awareness and self-assessment of his/her capabilities;
  • Reasonable perspective on his/her own performance strengths and weaknesses;
  • Reasonable accurate perception of how he/she is seen by management, peers;
  • Reasonable perspective on personal responsibility (blaming others or accountable for the consequences of their poor performance?);
  • Reasonable acceptance of performance criticism; and
  • Ability to see things from someone else’s perspective.

A particular employee’s potential for violence

When HR sees red flags going into a performance counseling with a particular employee, there are some simple questions to consider.  The focus needs to be on observable behavior, behavior changes and employee disclosures. Here are a series of questions that get at the employee’s observable behavior in the workplace as well as their potential state of mind:

  • Is the employee’s employment status about to change involuntarily and what is their potential awareness and acceptance of this change?
  • Has the employee made any overt or veiled threats against the company or employees?
  • Has employee asked for accommodations or disclosed mental illness or emotional difficulties?
  • Has the employee made complaints about others that proved to be false or unfounded?
  • Has employee disclosed significant life stressors: recent or pending divorce, financial difficulties or personal loss?
  • Do the employee’s performance history, counselings and results reveal troubling patterns?
  • Does the employee have a criminal background?
  • Has the employee talked about revenge, fights outside of work or violence, generally?
  • Have there been any observable, recent behavior changes? Odd behaviors or performance changes?

The key here is to trust your instincts.  Seasoned HR professionals generally know to trust their instincts or “gut feelings.”  When you have that uneasy feeling, consult an informed and neutral third-party – perhaps an HR colleague to see if he/she shares the concerns.

Part 3 in this series will cover the planning for an intervention, next.

(c) copyright BCSPublishing 2012 all rights reserved

Part 1: HR Principles Guiding Workplace Violence Prevention

Workplace shootings covered in the news remind human resource professionals that monitoring potential violence and unsafe behavior in the workplace is crucial. Planning for any performance intervention or termination conference must include an evaluation of the risk for dangerous behavior. This article includes a comprehensive series of questions to support such an evaluation.

Introduction

Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, states that employers have a duty to protect employees from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious harm to employees. Emotionally unsafe employees often react strongly to negative information or changes in the workplace. Physical harm to human resource staff, supervisors or company employees are an immediate consequence but there are long-term human effects such as: emotional toll – grieving employees, trauma for those who witness violence. Finally, the business will suffer as folks struggle to regain some form of normalcy.

24-hour factor

When employees are counseled about poor performance or turned down for a position, they may not act out at first. There may be an apparent honey-moon period in which the unsafe employee is unable to respond at first, followed by a strong reaction that builds as the reality of the situation becomes clear days later. I call this the “24 hour” factor.

Attorneys and security can help

Workplace violence prevention strategies can help to manage the risks associated with unsafe, unstable employees. The greatest point of risk is during or after an intervention aimed some negative situation: poor performance, being passed over, or probation and termination. Human Resource professionals often have feelings of apprehension during this preparation. They consult their attorney on the HR legalities and make plans that involve security personnel or the police. Attorney’s can comment on the legality of an employer’s action and the likelihood that an employee action might be successful in court. The police can contain certain situations once erupted, but neither may be able to assess the psychological potential for violence in advance. Sometimes visible security dampens the risk of violence.  In some cases, a visible police or security presence may actually incite a greater reaction. A good assessment of psychologically-based risk and sound intervention planning can make a significant difference in the outcome. Using information that management and HR already possess regarding the individual’s behavior in some or all of the following areas can yield a psychological profile that can inform successful planning.

 HIPAA vs Assessing the risk

When consulted on potentially violent employees, questions arise about private/medical matters that employers are charged with protecting – has the employee been diagnosed mental illness or medical condition that might alter mood? Does the employee take a medication that alters mood? Often this information is familiar to coworkers.  If the employer is unaware of these employee mental health issues, you move to observable behavior and other employee disclosures. Has the employee had violent outbursts, over-reacted to minor issues, broken tools, etc? Does the employee talk about violence in their home?

Workplace safety goals:

The following are the ultimate goals of violence prevention policies

  • Keeping company employees safe from aggression, threats of violence and assault;
  • Keeping company property safe from damage or theft and company operations safe from sabotage; and
  • Keeping an employee safe from self-harm at work or immediately after HR action
  • Keeping the community safe when you suspect imminent harm to people outside the company.

Guiding principles for violence prevention policies

It is important to know what ethical principles should guide decision-making in this kind of situation. Here are some examples:

  • Prevention of violent or unsafe incidents at work is a priority;
  • Company responses must be legal, ethical, professional and respectful;
  • Employees must be treated equally with respect to mental illness so attention must be focused on employee performance measures and observable behavior;
  • Responses must be consistent with company policies;
  • Company employees must be free from abuse, intimidation and physical harm at work;
  • Continuous, smooth and orderly business operations must be maintained;
  • Employee relations for the unit, peers and supervisor is important;
  • Planning and approach should consider professional risk assessment when there is a history of violence, threat of violence, discussion of firearms or presence of a chronic mental illness.

Companies can always add safety measures to written policies as long as they are focused on legitimate safety issues at hand and do not disproportionately affect a protected class. Some policies that might contain references to potentially violent conduct in the workplace:

  • Employee Termination
  • Medical Benefits
  • Conditions for Continued Employment
  • Progressive Discipline
  • Workplace Violence
  • Workplace Harassment
  • Performance Management and Feedback
  • Employee Requests for Disability Accommodations

Part 2: Checklist for planning interventions – coming next.

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