25 Ways to Prevent Workplace Violence During Terminations
by William S. Frank, President/CEO of CareerLab®

Outplacement on Keyoard
Although most separations go smoothly, any termination can go wrong. In the wake of the recent shootings and violence after terminations, it's wise to review your corporate outplacement practices to make sure they're safe.

For many people, work is life; so losing a job is traumatic, even if the person affected expects the loss and sees it coming. Treat each situation as a lethal time bomb.

The moment of separation is often a crisis. If it's handled well, everything thereafter goes smoothly, but if it's handled poorly, anything can happen.

Dick Sullivan, an oilfield executive with a 22 year tenure, was fired one Friday afternoon by a total stranger. He was told bluntly to "pack up and get out," and he flew into a rage that lasted months. Dick's ex-employer is lucky he didn't start shooting.

Ellen Sampson, age 62, was a loyal, trusted employee of a bank holding company. She had worked there more than 20 years, when she was called to the coffee shop at a Holiday Inn and fired by three people at once: the human resources, branch, and regional sales managers. They told her to go home and not to go back to the office. She felt humiliated and victimized, and she sued—but she could just as easily have become violent.

Therefore, proceed with caution. The key to an uneventful termination is planning. Whether laying off one person or a hundred, don't leave anything to chance. Large layoffs tend to be more unwieldy, therefore more dangerous. They require extra planning. Here are 25 ways to fine tune your outplacement program:

  1. Employment is a two-way street, and when an employee fails, the company is usually partly responsible. Either they recruited the wrong person, or they didn't train or manage them well. Managers should repeatedly ask themselves, "Have I done all I can to help this employee grow and change? Am I at fault here? Have I caused this person to be ineffective? If so, what can I do differently?"

  2. Use honest performance measurements at all levels of your company, from entry-level workers to the CEO. Appraisals don't always have to be written, but they must be honest and direct. Everyone deserves to know how they're doing—senior executives. Firings at high levels tend to be especially brutal, so make sure even high-level managers are measured.

  3. Explain, document, and discuss poor performance; and give everyone a legitimate chance to improve. Initiate training to strengthen problem areas.

  4. The worst termination mistake is surprise. If someone is failing, confront them. If their job is on the line, tell them so. Don't allow managers to give good ratings to poor performers, and document and discuss poor performance as it arises—don't wait for annual reviews. Warn problem employees that their work is unsatisfactory, and tell them what needs to be done and by when. If someone's job is in jeopardy, tell them they could be terminated.

  5. Don't lay people off unexpectedly when they've had good performance appraisals, or when they haven't had any warning. Doing so hits hard and creates anger. And a glowing appraisal followed shortly by termination for poor performance doesn't make sense to anybody. According to Paul Shaddock, Sr. VP Human Resources, United Technologies Microelectronics Center: "Everyone who walks out today has 'the legal gun,' and lawyers are waiting to put bullets in it." What's worse, employees are assumed to be right, and employers are guilty until they prove themselves innocent.

  6. When possible, choose retraining or internal placement over outplacement—it's often cheaper than orienting a new hire, and it builds company morale.

  7. Bring an experienced outplacement consultant into any termination process as soon as practical. Two to three weeks' advance notice is helpful, but one week's notice is standard. Consultants take emergency calls and can often respond the same day; but that isn't good planning.

  8. Usually there is some element of unfairness about a termination. It comes at the wrong time: six months before vesting in the company pension plan, during a divorce, or when a friend or family member is sick or dying. There's seldom a right time to be let go.

    So be aware of ERISA and the new Family Leave Act, and carefully review the candidate's personal background. Do you know of any major illnesses in the family? How about serious financial problems? Is the person over 40? Will they be hard to place in another job? If you uncover extreme personal hardship, take that into consideration.

  9. Use preventive law. If the person is in a protected class (because of age, gender, race, or disability), it's money well spent to get a legal opinion in advance.

  10. Pre-plan the termination meeting. Ask yourself: Who will conduct the interview? Who should witness the meeting? How will remaining staff be told? What about personal possessions? Who in the company will react emotionally? Who will carry the extra workload?

  11. Provide the best outplacement counseling program you can afford, especially in difficult cases. Some programs are so short they're outplacement in name only.

  12. Don't wait for days, weeks, or even months to begin outplacement. The first few hours after a termination are critical.

  13. Don't give candidates the consultant's business card with the instructions, "Call if you need help." Candidates don't know what outplacement is. They're often confused, shocked, and embarrassed. They don't know what is in their best interest. They may be afraid to call. If given this choice, ex-employees generally won't use outplacement, and until they're re-employed, they remain a concern to your company. Have the consultant on-site at the time of termination.

  14. Provide managers with a written script that tells them exactly what to say and what to avoid. Role play the separation beforehand.

  15. Keep the actual termination meeting brief, say ten or fifteen minutes. There's no good way to say, "Your job is ending," and usually the less said or written, the better.

  16. Allow departing employees to save face and maintain self esteem. Don't attack them or put them down. Explain the decision, but acknowledge their strengths and contributions.

  17. Collect keys or other access devices to prevent unauthorized access, copying or "lost" security cards.

  18. Be generous with severance pay. Rule of thumb: one month of pay for the first year of service, and either one or two weeks of pay per year of service thereafter. Keep severance consistent companywide.

  19. Continue medical benefits and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) during severance.

  20. Explain the severance package in writing. Nothing makes a departing employee more angry than guessing about money and benefits.

  21. Don't escort anyone from the building with armed guards or make them pack their belongings in front of colleagues. Except in high-security areas, let ex-employees leave the building on their own and return after hours under supervision to retrieve their personal effects.

  22. In the weeks that follow the separation, answer follow-up questions promptly and thoroughly. Don't keep people hanging.

  23. Listen for fallout. If you hear, "I'm going to get even," "You'll be sorry for this," or similar comments, take them seriously. If you see disturbed behavior, consult a clinical psychologist immediately.

  24. Resist the urge to return threats. Instead, offer support: "That sounded like a threat, Jim, you must be really angry. I'd like to hear more about it." Disarm anger by listening and showing empathy.

  25. Last of all, don't kill job offers with bad references.
Don't try to ruin someone's career no matter how angry you are or how poorly he or she performed. Everyone is valuable somewhere. Try to find something positive to say, then say it. Don't lie or mislead, but give a balanced opinion.

These basic humanistic steps can greatly reduce the risk of termination violence. Take the threat of violence seriously, even if you're an experienced pro. Plan carefully so nothing is left to chance. Treat people fairly, and most of the time they'll react accordingly. If and when they do get angry or upset, you'll be well prepared.

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