Preparing for Interventions With Potentially Violent or Unsafe Employees - Assessing the Risk

Suzanne V. Benoit LCSW, SPHR
August 2, 2011 — 2,532 views  
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Planning for any performance intervention or termination conference should include an evaluation of the risk for dangerous behavior. This article includes a comprehensive series of questions to support such an evaluation.

Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, states that employers have a duty to protect employees from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious harm to employees. Emotionally unsafe employees often react strongly to negative information or changes in the workplace. Physical harm to human resource staff, supervisors or company employees can be an immediate consequence but there is a potential for loss of productivity and long-term emotional consequences to employees who witness or learn of these incidents. Further, there may be an apparent honey-moon period in which the unsafe employee is unable to respond at first, followed by a strong reaction that builds as the reality of the situation becomes clear days or weeks later. I call this the 24 hour rule.

Workplace violence prevention strategies can minimize the risks associated with unsafe, unstable employees. The greatest point of risk is during or after an intervention aimed at either performance rehabilitation or employee termination. Human Resource professionals often have feelings of apprehension during this preparation. They consult their attorney on the HR legalities and make plans that involve security personnel or the police. Attorney's can comment on the legality of an employer's action and the likelihood that an employee action might be successful in court. The police can contain certain situations once erupted, but neither may be able to assess the psychological potential for violence in advance. In addition, in some cases, a visible police or security presence may actually incite a greater reaction. A good assessment of psychologically-based risk and sound intervention planning can make a significant difference in the outcome. Using information that management and HR already possess regarding the individual's behavior in some or all of the following areas can yield a psychological profile that will be helpful at the planning stage.

As a consultant, I ask about things that a proper workplace with proper employee privacy provisions, would generally not have access to such as: diagnosed mental illness or medical conditions. However, some employees disclose this personal information to peers and supervisors in the workplace and, in my opinion, it can be an important component in evaluating risk. My background in mental health leads me to ask these questions to determine the mental health issues and risk. If the employer is unaware, my questions will move to observable behavior.

Overall safety issues:

-Keeping company employees safe from aggression, threats of violence and assault;
-Keeping the community safe when you suspect imminent harm to people outside the company;
-Keeping company property safe from damage or theft and company operations safe from sabotage; and
-Keeping an employee safe from self-harm at work or immediately after HR action.

Guiding principles

It is important to know what ethical principles should guide decision-making in this kind of situation. Here are some examples:

  • Prevention of violent or unsafe incidents at work is a priority;
  • Company responses must be legal, ethical, professional and respectful;
  • Employees must be treated equally with respect to mental illness so attention must be focused on employee performance measures and observable behavior;
  • Responses must be consistent with company policies;
  • Company employees must be free from abuse, intimidation and physical harm at work;
  • Continuous, smooth and orderly business operations must be maintained;
  • Employee relations for the unit, peers and supervisor is important;
  • Planning and approach should consider professional risk assessment when there is a history of violence, threat of violence, discussion of firearms or presence of a chronic mental illness;

Assessment and analysis

The Company: When I am called in to a client's office in anticipation of a difficult performance action with a current employee, the first thing I want to know is what company staff have done and said to this point, and have any of the interventions and actions been successful. This includes the immediate supervisors whose close work proximity to the employee makes them a valuable source. The next thing I assess is the level of and consistency of security enforced by the company. What are employees used to in terms of restricted access areas? Is there a security force? If not, plans are made to involve the police right from the start. Finally, I need to know whether the company has proper policy documents, implementation consistency and employee training to follow these policies. The intervention with this employee should follow written policies unless doing so would clearly place someone in danger. Companies can always add safety measures to written policies as long as they are focused on legitimate safety issues at hand and do not disproportionately affect a protected class. Some policies that would apply to potentially violent workers:

  • Employee Termination
  • Medical Benefits
  • Progressive Discipline
  • Workplace Violence
  • Workplace Harassment
  • Performance Management and Feedback
  • Employee Requests for Disability Accommodations

The individual employee: The next issue is to focus on the individual employee's history and behavior to determine the risk. Over the years, I have found that looking at employee behavior overall-not just one or two incidents, is key to accurately assessing the potential for violence. Here are a series of questions that get at the employee's observable behavior in the workplace as well as their potential state of mind:

  • Is the employee's employment status about to change involuntarily and what is their potential awareness and acceptance of this change?
  • Has the employee made any overt or veiled threats against the company or employees?
  • Has employee asked for accommodations or disclosed mental illness or emotional difficulties?
  • Has the employee made complaints about others that proved to be false or unfounded?
  • Has employee disclosed significant life stressors: recent or pending divorce, financial difficulties, loss?
  • Do the employee's performance history, counselings and results reveal troubling patterns?
  • Does the employee have a criminal background?
  • Have there been any observable, recent behavior changes? Odd behaviors or performance changes?
  • Have there been observable changes in the employee's cognitive functioning and the ability to carry out the essential functions of the job; comprehend and remember key information; attend to details and procedures; and follow supervisory directives?
  • Is the company aware of a significant medical condition that might explain altered thought or cognitive functioning?
  • Does the employee have sufficient emotional health and maturity for the workplace?
    • Reasonable self-awareness and self-assessment of his or her capabilities;
    • Reasonable perspective on his/her own performance strengths and weaknesses;
    • Reasonable accurate perception of how he/she is seen by management, peers;
    • Reasonable perspective on personal responsibility (blaming others or accountable for the consequences of their poor performance?);
    • Reasonable acceptance of performance criticism; and
    • Ability to see things from someone else's perspective.
  • Are there observable vegetative symptoms - hygiene, grooming, sleep, appetite, weight loss?
  • Is the employee socially isolated or out-of-touch with his/her coworker group?
  • Does the employee accept company rules and management's role in enforcing them?
  • Is the employer aware of a history of self harm, violence or arguments?
  • Is the employer aware of a have a history of substance use or abuse?
  • What is the employee's longevity and history with the company?
  • Has the employee talked about firearms and have access to them?

Unit/department work peers: Often, the employee's supervisor and peers have important observations about the employee and feelings about working with them that can provide clues to the overall situation. There can be unfounded concerns so peer comments must be taken as a part of the whole picture. In addition, a respectful attitude regarding this employee must be maintained with respect to discussions with supervisors and peers.

Intervention Process Planning

A detailed plan for this type of intervention must be custom-designed for each situation but the general steps are noted here:

  • Assess employee background, work history and safety risks
  • Consult and expert or attorney on legal process
  • Create plan for handling the performance conference
  • Create detail schedule of events (include police or security in planning)
  • Prepare for each company or supervisory role in the intervention
  • Notify authorities or security for last-minute review of the plan
  • Implement the plan
  • Follow up with authorities if warranted
  • Follow up with peers and other workers who might have been affected by this employee's actions or the company intervention
  • Evaluate the outcome and evaluate potential changes to company policies


About the Author:

Suzanne V. Benoit, LCSW, SPHR is a human resources and organizational consultant, speaker and author promoting excellence in the workplace. Ms. Benoit specializes in HR compliance assessments and improvements and supporting organizations in the resolution of both straight forward performance issues as well as the special concerns associated with toxic employees and workplaces. For more information about the author please visit

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Suzanne V. Benoit LCSW, SPHR