Unstable Employees at Work

by Evil HR Lady on January 10, 2011

I’ve been reading about the Arizona shootings and was especially interested with the emails from one of the shooter’s classmates–about how he was sure the guy was dangerous. And I thought, what could a company do in a situation where an employee was showing signs of instability? I didn’t know, so I asked my favorite labor and employment lawer, Jon Hyman of the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog.

Jon answered my question regarding here: Unstable Employees at Work

I added some additional thoughts and more information about this at What Can a Company do with a Dangerous Employee?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Maggie January 10, 2011 at 6:49 pm

His reply is really intersting. Unstable employees due to personal characteristics, personal problems or just because they can't cope with a particularly stressing environment can be really dangerous not only for themselves but also for their coworkers.

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JenniferP January 10, 2011 at 7:40 pm

I highly recommend Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear for its chapters on preventing workplace violence.

De Becker's thesis is that violent people almost never "just snap." There are always warning signs. By dealing honestly with these we can often defuse situations before they happen, or at least not escalate them.

He focuses on the interview and hiring process, and provides examples of questions designed to tease out whether a potential employee has a persecution complex.

When an otherwise good employee starts acting in unstable ways, I think the answer is a combination of compassion, directness, and dealing with the problem early instead of letting it escalate. "(Behavior) is out of bounds at work. It's so out of character for you, you have me worried. What's going on?" Maybe HR can refer the employee to assistance, maybe you can do something to lighten the load. Then observe and document.

De Becker says that people turn to violence when they feel humiliated and that they are out of options, so it's very important that you don't humiliate the person and that you focus on the future. Dragging out a firing by rehashing everything that the employee did wrong, threatening their future prospects, and having them escorted out by security, etc. are behaviors that can escalate an unstable person's sense of helplessness. In firing someone you need to be firm, direct, and as respectful as you can be given the specific behaviors and risks.

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clobbered January 11, 2011 at 12:27 am

In my (thankfully limited) experience, "scary" employees are not just scary in a totally generic un-pinnable way. They do something that violates employment policies – erratic attendance, failure to follow instructions, trampling on harassment policies, illegally recording conversations and so on.

And, these people are surely generally reluctant to claim that their behaviour is pathological and hence invoke the protections of the ADA.

So in an employment environment (as opposed to an education environment), I suspect that management that wants to take drastic action can usually find a clear legal basis for it.

Of course that doesn't help in the case of head-in-the-sand management styles…

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Jon Hyman January 11, 2011 at 11:50 am

Employees that do something (erratic attendance, failure to follow instructions, trampling on harassment policies, etc.) are different than employees that threaten to do something. The direct threat defense to an ADA claim covers the latter, because the employee who merely threatens may not provide enough of a cover in a subsequent ADA lawsuit.

For me, however, all laws aside, it comes down to whether you want it on your conscience if an erratic employee about whom you have legitimate concerns does something bad. If you reasonably and in good faith believe an employee is dangerous and poses a risk, and you can document that belief, then take action and let the chips falls where they may. A court will seldom conclude that you have to wait for something bad to happen before you remove an erratic employee from your workplace. There are simply too many examples where employers ignored the warning signs and bad things resulted.

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Laurie Fontenot January 30, 2011 at 9:40 pm

This is a hot topic – it seems that we often are more concerned about the "rights" of the perpetrator and not as much about the potential consequences of their aberrrant behavior. I agree that standards are needed to ensure people are not Indiscriminately harrassed, hence following the ADA mandates will help HR set policies for all employees to adhere to. Everyone has the right to feel safe in the work environment!

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