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Planning terminations that involve potentially violent employees

In another sad chapter of Minnesota's deadliest workplace shooting, Accent Signage Systems is being sued by the family of one of its employees, a deceased victim, for being grossly negligent.

In October 2012, managers at Accent Signage fired employee Andrew Engeldinger, who then shot those managers and several other coworkers before killing himself. Six employees of Accent Signage - including the company owner - were killed in the rampage.

The lawsuit states that the events were "reasonably foreseeable based on Engeldinger's past incidents of employment misconduct and his known propensity for abuse and violence" and state that the company should have taken greater precautions when firing the shooter. Engeldinger's estate is also a party to the suit.

Looking back at a termination gone nightmarishly wrong, it's easy to point fingers or to say what should have been done differently. As the old saying goes, hindsight is 20/20 vision. Sadly, in this case, the people who made the decisions about how the termination was handled paid with their lives for those decisions.

As with any mass shooting, there's a lot of coverage of the event online - his parents said that they saw their son's descent into paranoia and mental illness, but were powerless to affect change or get help. Coworkers describe a moody, quiet loner. The victim whose family brought suit had spoken of his unease, saying that Engeldinger was his nemesis. At least one post-event report stated that a search of Engeldinger's work computer revealed he had done much of his research and shopping for weapons and ammunition while on the job - a chilling detail, if true. Yet the Star Tribune notes that, "Engeldinger's court and employment records show no history of physical threats or violence before the shootings -- only repeated warnings for being late to work and being verbally abrasive with colleagues."

There are so many issues involved in these cases: the plight of family members who watch a loved one's terrible struggle; the grief of survivors, and the long road of recovery for witnesses; the issue of mental illness and the way it is handled in the workplace and in society at large; the issue of guns, and the increase in laws that prevent an employer from forbidding that guns be kept in cars in a company parking lot; and the related legal issues, lawsuits, and human resource issues. For today's post, we focus on prevention. If we learn nothing from such tragic events, then they are doubly senseless.

Firing a volatile and violent employee
Firing an employee is never a comfortable event, not in the best of circumstances. Managers never truly know how someone will react. We've blogged about best practices for this tough responsibility before. When dealing with troubled employees, there are special precautions that should be taken - particularly if there is the merest hint that things could turn badly or violently.

Long before a situation reaches the level where a termination of a potentially volatile employee is required, there are steps that should have been taken. These start with best hiring practices and a widely promoted and well-enforced policy of zero-tolerance for violence.

In addition, from the outset of employment, managers should be alert for red flags that may indicate a propensity to violence. Some of these include:

  • A chronic inability to get along with fellow employees
  • Mood swings and anger control issues
  • Expressions of paranoia or persecution. Being a "victim"
  • A history of problems with past jobs and and/or personal relationships
  • An inability to get beyond minor setbacks or disputes at work
  • A fascination with guns, weapons or violent events
  • A sudden deterioration in work habits or personal grooming
  • Signs of stress, depression, or suicidal ideation
  • A major life problem, such as divorce or legal problems

If red flags surface, or at the first sign of any anger issues that do not rise to the disciplinary level of termination, an employee should be referred to the company's Employee Assistance Program for anger management counseling and for an assessment so that any underlying mental health or personal issues may be identified and addressed. A Fitness for Duty exam is another tool that might be used if behavior indicates potential mental health issues. (See the article by James J. McDonald in "Additional Resources" for more on this.)

Even when all best practices occur in hiring and ongoing supervision, a termination is sometimes inevitable. Minnesota labor and employment law attorney Marylee Abrams states that having a strategic plan when terminating an employee can minimize the risk of violence. She offers several good suggestions in her article.

Other suggestions we've compiled from various sources include:

  • Consider having a professional threat assessment performed
  • Consider using a neutral manager or outside security consultant to carry out the termination
  • If there is manager or supervisor who has been the object of threats or anger, that person should not be the person to conduct the termination
  • Have security nearby - not in the same office, but close enough to hear signs of a problem and to act
  • Do not take a break. There are numerous instances of an employee asking for a bathroom break or time to compose him- or herself, and using the break to retrieve weapons
  • Wait until the end of the workday to terminate, if possible. This protects the dignity of the person being fired and minimizes the number of employees on hand should a situation escalate
  • Minimize any reasons why the employee would have to revisit the workplace. Mail a check; have uncollected belongings sent to the person's home via a delivery service
  • Allow the person as much dignity as possible, but be brief and to the point. Do not get into a back and forth
  • Emphasize any severance benefits and outsourcing help that may be available. Some organizations decide they will not contest unemployment or offer the option of resigning.

Additional Resources
We offer a few resources that we think are particularly good on this important topic.

Terminating the Violent Employee (PDF) - by James J. McDonald, Jr., a partner in the Irvine office of Fisher & Phillips LLP. He offers a sample workplace policy and excellent advice rooted in the legal perspective.

Deadly Terminations and How to Avoid Them - IRMI article by James N. Madero, Ph.D. of Violence Prevention International. He presents deadly scnarios and ways that risk might have been mitigated.

Firing the Violent or Threatening Employee Without Being Fired On (PDF) - Ten pages of advice from Steven C. Millwee, author and expert on workplace violence.

Eight Tips for Meeting with a Potentially Violent Employee - these tips from attorney Robert Bettac are not necessarily aimed for a termination meeting, but offer good advice.

Prior Related Blog Posts

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ESI-Logo.jpg A good EAP is a vital component in your violence prevention program, offering important support resources for your managers and help for troubled employees. In addition, ESI EAP offers trained response teams for on-site trauma intervention. If you want to learn more about how ESI can provide more employee EAP benefits and more employer services, call us at 800-535-4841.
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