Human resources professionals are assessing termination procedures following the February workplace shootings at the Henry Pratt Co. manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois.
Michelle Lee, HR director for the Wynright Corp. in Elk Grove, Illinois, noted, “While we review and evaluate our policies on a regular basis, this situation emphasizes the importance of protecting our employees. We are going to partner more with local law enforcement to ensure they understand the make-up of our facilities and employee population. In some cases, we may have them on premises for risky terminations.”
Courtney Templin, president of the Chicago chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, said, “Our jobs as HR professionals are never easy and it’s at times like this when we feel the real weight of our roles.”
The Feb. 15 shooting by a 15-year employee being terminated that day killed five employees, including the HR director and an HR intern on his first day on the job, and wounded five police officers.
According to federal government statistics, there were 458 workplace homicides in 2017, of which 351 were committed with a gun.
Melissa Boyce, an attorney and legal editor for XpertHR, said employers should review what they can and cannot do to lawfully restrict employees’ weapon possession on workplace property.
Virtually all workplace shootings fit the category of targeted violence, said Randy Van Dyne, a consultant for the University of Findlay’s All Hazards Training Center in Ohio, which offers workplace violence prevention programs.
The shooter’s main motivation is to get even with a person or organization for perceived injustices, said Van Dyne, adding such events are often preventable because the perpetrator presents signs including ideation, planning, preparation and implementation.
Communication with volatile employees is key, said Charles Krugel, a Chicago-based management-side labor and employment lawyer.
When no threats are present, respond quietly and calmly. Don’t take the employee’s behavior personally. Asking questions respectfully demonstrates that aggression isn’t necessary, he said.
“An apology may calm the person and encourage cooperation,” Krugel added. “Say, ‘I’m sorry to hear this happened. What can be done to solve the problem?”
Summarize the employee’s comments.
“In a crisis, a person feels humiliated and wants respect and attention,” he said. “Focus on areas of agreement.”
Ask an upset employee calmly and firmly to lower their voice and state, “There will be no disruptions here. Please be patient so I can understand what you need and try to help you,” Krugel added.
In continued disruption, tell the individual they can be disciplined or prosecuted, state that the discussion is over, and ask them to please leave or the police will be summoned, Krugel said.
If the individual seems dangerous, find a quiet, safe but not isolated place to talk.
“Maintain a safe distance, do not turn your back,” said Krugel. “Leave the door open or open a closed door. Sit near it.”
Ensure a co-worker is near to help if needed.
Using a calm, non-confrontational approach, allow the person to describe the problem.
Ensure the employee’s hands are on the table, said Van Dyne.
Avoid touching the individual to remove them from the area; a gentle push or holding their arm can be misinterpreted as assault by an agitated individual who may respond with violence or a lawsuit, Krugel said.
“Use a prearranged distress signal to have another staff member alert a supervisor and/or police,” said Krugel. “If you fear a violent response, do not mention discipline or the police.
“If the situation escalates, find a way to excuse yourself. Say, ‘You’ve raised some tough questions. I’ll consult my supervisor to see what we can do.’ ”
Who is present at a termination meeting depends on the situation.
HR directors set a neutral and consistent tone, deflect high emotions and ensure company procedures are followed to help ensure others’ safety and maintain the security of confidential information, Lee said.
The Aurora case also was influenced by labor union representation, said Krugel, adding there are laws and rules that apply regarding the National Labor Relations Act and the plant’s collective bargaining agreement.
At Lee’s company Wynright Corp., managers and HR role play before termination meetings to ensure they are fair, consistent and concise, said Lee.
HR consultant Carol Semrad of C. Semrad & Associates in Chicago and Chicago SHRM chapter treasurer, suggested the presence of one person “who can most influence that person being let go. Sometimes people in different positions have different amounts of social currency with somebody.”
Termination has always been one of the most uncomfortable and cautious situations employers have to approach, said Monika Bowles, HR director for the Village of Royal Palm Beach, Florida.
“You don’t really know the mind of the person you’re dealing with,” said Bowles. “When you terminate someone, do it without demoralizing them. There are huge repercussions and consequences to terminating somebody that has far more reach into their lives than we tend to think about.”
Supportive measures might include offering outplacement services, resume writing and if appropriate, a letter of reference.
Lee keeps terminations brief and schedules them at the day’s end when fewer employees are on site to minimize the employee’s embarrassment.
“Don’t have anyone near the terminated employee they may want to get even with,” said Van Dyne. “Wish them best and get them on their way.”
Semrad advises clients that if they believe a termination may involve risk, notify building security and potentially law enforcement to alert them of the meeting time.