Workforce.com

A Murder-Suicide Points Up the Devastation of Job Loss

January 30, 2009
W hen a Los Angeles X-ray technician killed his family and himself shortly after being fired, it sent a shudder of sadness and horror through his community. It also serves as a reminder to employers that any kind of dismissal in a sinking economy—even one done for cause—can be fraught with emotional issues and even the potential for violence.

    On January 26, Ervin Antonio Lupoe, 40, who just had been fired by Kaiser Permanente, faxed a two-page letter to a local television station. He claimed that he and his wife, who was also fired by Kaiser, had made a suicide pact, and blamed Kaiser for his actions.

    In the letter, Lupoe claimed that a Kaiser supervisor suggested that Lupoe shoot himself. Later that day, police discovered that Lupoe had shot himself, his wife and their five young children.

    In a statement, Kaiser spokeswoman Diana Bonta said that the health care organization is "saddened by the despair in Mr. Lupoe’s note, but we are confident that no one told him to take his own life."

    The Oakland, California-based health care provider said that Lupoe and his wife, Ana, were terminated "for good cause."

    "They had forged the signatures of supervisors and misrepresented their income on official documents provided to a nonprofit agency that provides assistance for child care," Bonta said.

    Throughout the termination process, "the Lupoes were treated with the dignity and respect," Bonta said. She added that Kaiser is cooperating with the police investigation and has shared information from its internal investigation with investigators.

    No one may ever know all the factors that led Lupoe to kill himself and his family, but the tragedy shows how fragile employees can be during a serious economic downturn, experts say.

    And while services that an employer will offer to a dismissed employee may vary, depending on whether a person is fired for cause or because of a tanking economy, it’s critical for managers and HR to be aware of how devastating a dismissal can be.

    The loss of a job "can result in huge psychological and emotional swings as well as physical difficulties in some cases for employees and their families," says Peter Burki, CEO of LifeCare, a Shelton, Connecticut-based employee assistance program provider. During the past three months, call volume has jumped 215 percent at LifeCare, Burki says. Those calls all centered on layoffs, home foreclosures, bankruptcies, stress and depression.

    To avoid a potentially volatile situation during a layoff, employers should make sure to provide information about their employee assistance programs, Burki says. Not only can EAP providers help with emotional support, but they can also provide practical support, like providing information on how to get food assistance or assistance with paying bills, he says.

    Managers also should undergo training so that they can recognize the signs of a potentially violent or suicidal employee, Burki says. "It is important for employees who are laid off to be offered counseling to help them talk to their families and give them hope," Burki says. "You cannot predict a death by suicide, but you can identify people who are at risk."

    Another way that employers can help laid-off employees look forward is by providing reference letters when they lay off employees, says Paul Bressan, chair of the labor and employment practice group at Los Angeles-based law firm Buchalter Nemer.

    Many companies have policies that instruct managers not to give references to employees who are being laid off, but providing a reference letter can show the employee that the company wants to help, he says.

    "Employers should say, ‘How can we help you with your transition?’ " Bressan says.

    Taking this approach can help employers avoid legal claims in the future, he says.

    "When all the legal niceties are said and done, a jury is going to look at who was the good guy," Bressan says. "If the jury thinks the employee is the good guy, then the employer has a problem."

    Employers also can make it easier for laid-off employees by offering outplacement services on-site when they break the news, says Debbie Muller, president of HR Acuity, a Chatham, New Jersey-based company that handles employee relations issues and conducts workplace investigations.

    "You want to help people think forward," she says. Outplacement firms can help laid-off employees work on their résumés and find job prospects.

    Even someone who has been let go because of poor performance can be connected with such services if the employer has a good relationship with the outplacement company, Muller says.

    "Sometimes people are just in the wrong job, and that’s as much the fault of the company as the person," she says. Ultimately, they’ll be better off in a different job, Muller says, "and providing services like outplacement can help them."

    A company may not be as generous when an employee is fired for something "really egregious," like a direct violation of company policy, the sharing of confidential or proprietary information, or a misuse of company funds, Muller says. In such firings, the company’s primary interest is in ensuring the security of the company and the safety of its employees during and after the termination.

    But even if a firing is completely warranted, the process should be respectful, she says.

    "You do it that way because other people are watching, and if the person you’re firing is treated disrespectfully, that can hurt the rest of the workforce," Muller says. "All they see is how the person is being treated," and often won’t know why someone is being let go.

    Perhaps nothing could have been done to prevent Lupoe from killing himself and his family, but experts say treating terminated employees with dignity, respect and fairness—no matter why they’re being let go—is something employers should always do to avoid potentially explosive situations.

    Bressan invokes the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.