At-Risk Terminations: Protecting Employees, Preventing Disaster

By Viollis, Paul; Kane, Doug | Risk Management, May 2005 | Go to article overview

At-Risk Terminations: Protecting Employees, Preventing Disaster


Viollis, Paul, Kane, Doug, Risk Management


Workplace violence costs to American businesses have risen dramatically over recent years, from $4.2 billion in 1992 to an estimated $121 billion in 2002. At the same time, companies are turning a blind eye to workplace violence prevention policies and termination procedures. A 2004 survey conducted by the American Society of Safety Engineers showed only 1% of companies have a written policy addressing violence in the workplace, while only 50% have procedures to notify management of threats. Perhaps the most chilling statistic was that 74% of the 755 members surveyed said their organizations had not yet conducted a formal risk assessment of the potential for violent acts in their workplace. In addition, little or no workplace violence avoidance training is being provided to employees.

Aside from the lone gunman who randomly targets a company, which is extremely rare, workplace violence is never spontaneous and completely preventable. Violators fit a certain profile and display warning signs that reveal their propensity for violence. Whether a violent outbreak is imminent or months away, a future incident does not have to result in senseless killings.

If a volatile employee who has remained under the radar screen turns out to be the same employee whose termination is poorly handled, the consequences can be both emotionally draining and financially costly. This has been sharply underscored by companies recent drive to boost their bottom line by offshoring and outsourcing labor and services. The amount of negative press this practice has generated speaks for itself, but the resentment it causes to those directly affected cannot be understated.

In one situation, for example, a worker was not only outsourced, but was given the choice of training his overseas replacement or leaving early and foregoing his final paycheck. As a result, thge worker started e-mailing death threats to his manager. To show how serious he was, he included pictures of the manager's children being dropped off at school. The accompanying message said, "I know where they are." In this instance, the executive sought assistance soon enough to diffuse the situation, but unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Experience has shown that acts of workplace violence are often preceded by verbal threats and/or off-handed remarks to friends and colleagues revealing sinister intentions. Many times, the individual is not taken seriously or there is not a mechanism in place to capture this information and funnel it to the appropriate individuals. Some 86% of past workplace violence incidents were visibly apparent to co-workers and had been brought to management's attention prior to an incident occurring. Unfortunately, more than 75% of these incidents continued to develop as a result of management's inaction or inappropriate actions.

Historically, research shows there are a number of consistent characteristics associated with a perpetrator. The typical profile is of an individual who is usually male, between 25 and 40, who exhibits an inability to handle stress, manipulative behavior, and constant complaining, among other traits. Many people, however, pose no threat at all but also meet these criteria, so they should be used in context with "red flag" factors, such as making verbal threats, exploding in physical or verbal outbursts, disrespecting the relationship between employees and supervisors, harboring grudges, brandishing weapons to gain attention, etc.

Trained employees who are informed who and what to look for and how to report it discreetly can pinpoint employees displaying a propensity towards violence. Workplace violence prevention training can protect companies from facing millions of dollars in litigation and business interruption costs, consulting and counseling fees, increased insurance costs, and decreased shareholder value.

Precautionary Measures

Increasingly, senior executives are finding themselves in the crosshairs of an employee who feels unjustly treated. …

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