Minimizing Chances of Violence When Terminating Difficult Employees

Although some angry former employees who’ve been fired have tried to physically harm or kill their former employers and co-workers, there are constructive steps you can take to greatly lower the chances of any workplace violence. After all, most workers don’t suddenly begin doing poor work or behaving rudely to others. There is usually an extended time period when a person’s work starts to deteriorate.

If you’ll conscientiously conduct regular employee job evaluations that put each worker on notice of any deficits in their productivity or demeanor, being let go should rarely come as a surprise (unless there’s been a sudden, violent outburst or you’ve recently discovered illegal activity).

Here’s some specific advice about how your company or office manager should interact with employees once you’ve decided to fire them.

Workplace practices that may help a dismissed employee cope better when terminated

  • Privately inform the employee that you need to meet with him/her in your office.

No one likes to be embarrassed in front of others, so be discreet. Plan to have at least one other management employee present to witness the event. Once you start this meeting, be sure to briefly reference the other person present and then immediately tell the worker being fired that this is a permanent decision that’s been made after great consideration of all the relevant facts. (These words can help prevent an anguished exchange during which the employee may beg to stay on the job – or even unwisely threaten those s/he blames for the firing.)

Give serious thought to creating a folder with all the materials the employee will need inside of it. Then, tell the employee you’d like to go over the different forms, possibly including any severance agreement that your company may need signed and dated in your presence. If you employ 20 or more employees, be sure to include adequate information about how the employee can apply for (and most likely) receive health insurance through the COBRA program. (COBRA stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation law.) And be sure to check with your Houston employment law attorney to see if Texas requires that you provide the person with any other health insurance information.

Remember to always speak in a calm and pleasant tone, even if the employee becomes a bit agitated or excited. Consider always having a company (or building) security guard on hand in the outer office, just in case an upset employee becomes unruly.

Be willing to stop and answer questions. After all, most people have many questions they need to ask at such an upsetting time in their life — even if they “should have known” this event was likely. Carefully explain exactly when a final check will be cut and explain how you will deliver the funds to the person being dismissed.

  • Obtain all remaining property that must be returned. When providing the employee with notice of the meeting, you should always give the individual a clear list of all proprietary equipment, keys and other materials that you expect to have returned to you in good condition. If the person has been entrusted with extremely important security codes, you might want to note that those are always changed when any employee leaves the company.

If any major piece of equipment is not returned, be prepared to discuss a reduction in the final sum of money owed to the person – unless you failed to state that policy in your employee handbook. If no prior notice was provided, you should speak to your attorney about the wisdom of deducting any amount of money from that final paycheck or payment of benefits owed.

In addition to all company vehicles, be sure to collect all ID badges, security parking tags not currently affixed to vehicles, beepers, cell phones and confidential company publications.

Finally, you should calmly allow the employee to express some moderate anger about the decision. Sit quietly – and at most, simply restate that the decision is final. By listening to the person, you’re affirming them to some extent, and that’s important to having the individual leave in a calmer state of mind.

Unless the employee becomes verbally abusive (not just angry or a little flippant), ask them to be prepared to leave with all their belongings right after the meeting. (Of course, you should have already conducted a thorough investigation of any reported wrongdoings by the employee – and given that person a chance to explain his/her side of any alleged wrongdoing.)

Note: Always be sure that the person has time to collect his/her belongings and remind them to check the employee lunchroom or any locker that may have been assigned. It’s also wise to state that you will not be discussing the dismissal further with any of the departing employee’s co-workers. As for references, try to state (if true), that your company normally only provides confirmation of employment dates, without further comments or explanations. (Be sure that’s already set forth in your employee handbook). If the person has remained calm, brief goodbyes to co-workers should also be allowed.

  • One other key point: always be specific during the dismissal process. Employees being let go really want to know why their work wasn’t satisfactory. Since people often feel completely out of control of their lives when they’re being fired – specific feedback helps them feel empowered and like they can bounce back with a new job. It can help to have copies of all recent job performance evaluations handy when meeting with any employee who is leaving.

If you liked the person but found their work unacceptable, you’re always free to tell them that you wish them well and hope they can find another position more in keeping with their most highly developed talents;

  • Decide in advance whether your company believes it should ever allow someone being fired to “resign” their position instead. This helps some people feel less angry and like they have retained some degree of self-respect. Of course, if you do choose to allow this approach, you should remind the departing employee (in writing) that s/he might still be legally viewed as having been fired.

However, be sure you avoid making any promises about the receipt of unemployment benefits when someone chooses to resign. To protect yourself, it’s probably best to tell the person (in writing) that they will need to check with the Texas Workforce Commission about such benefits, noting that all dismissals are usually handled on a case-by-case basis.

  • Formal outplacement services. While these are most frequently used by large corporations when laying off groups of employees, it’s wise to check on all the services that they provide. However, if you’re a smaller company or a solo office with a relatively small group of employees this probably won’t be practical. If nothing else, try to include a form in the “separation” or dismissal packet that provides the address of the nearest Texas Workforce Commission office, its website address, and the phone number for that office. People will usually be calmer if they have an idea about how they can immediately begin looking for a new job;
  • Provide clear information about what you’ll be including in the employee’s final paycheck. In Texas, an employer normally has six days to provide the departing employee with his/her final paycheck. However, if someone insists that they’re quitting the job, you can wait to issue their final paycheck at the time of the next scheduled payday.  See Texas Code Annotated, Labor, Section 61.014.

If you fail to pay a fired employee on time, you might be required to pay that person damages – and possibly even a penalty to the employee and the state.

And remember that in most states, you’re usually required to pay the employee for any accrued vacation time.

Gray areas can easily occur during dismissals

A bit too often, people get very angry when being fired. In some cases, they will storm off during your meeting, claiming that you can’t fire them – because they’re quitting. While you do not have to put up with rude or antagonistic behavior, you might want to calmly note that being fired might be the better option, if they prefer to sit and think about it for a few minutes.

However, you have no duty to try and counsel the person on this issue. Just be aware that when any employee says s/he is walking off the job, the law may not treat that person as fired – causing the individual to lose access to unemployment benefits.

If the departing employee really tried hard to do good work for many years and may just no longer be able to keep up with new job technologies, your company always has the option of covering the fee so that individual can go to a local personnel agency and receive one formal placement in a new position.

Final tips for carefully handling employee dismissals

  • As the Texas Workforce Commission notes, try to avoid dismissing or firing any employee “during the heat of the moment.” All future interactions will go much more smoothly if there are clear reasons for firing a person that have been documented over time – even though Texas doesn’t require warnings for at-will employees. Just try whenever possible, to treat anyone you wish to fire with dignity.
  • Make sure all your actions are backed by clearly stated company policies and procedures. The last thing any company needs is to be sued by an angry former employee who can reference an employee handbook that clearly indicates that you failed to properly handle his/her dismissal.
  • Be sure you always responded to all legitimate complaints made by the person you’re about to fire. The Texas Workforce Commission is often sympathetic to people seeking unemployment benefits who can document that certain workplace problems – that were formally reported and negatively impacted the person’s performance – were never properly addressed.
  • Try to only fire people early in the morning or late in the day – when few other workers are still present. And be sensitive enough to not provoke someone by firing them on their birthday or the day before a major holiday.
  • Check ahead of time with your accountant to be sure the employee doesn’t owe the company for any loan made against future paychecks.
  • While it was suggested above that you may rarely want to try and help a worker meet with a personnel agency, keep in mind many workers may try to abuse that privilege.
  • Never allow any employee who was just dismissed to log back into the company computer system. Irate people with moderate skills can easily wreak havoc on your database or other sensitive files.
  • Always have each staff person present during the termination meeting prepare a memo documenting what took place. This information can prove very useful later if your company is sued for wrongful termination.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys if you need to ask any questions about specific issues involved with terminating an employee. We can also help you (re)draft your employee handbooks so that all procedures involved with firing employees are set forth clearly.