By JARED SHELLY, senior editor/web editor of Risk & Insurance
Richard Gagnon surely saw himself as an exemplary employee. Working for an organic grocery co-op in Brattleboro, Vt., he was the go-to employee for wine advice and the 59-year-old was a fixture at the store, according to news reports.
But in August, Gagnon did something shockingly out-of-the-ordinary for the artistic, laid-back town -- he shot and killed his boss, Michael Martin, also 59.
One possible motive is that Martin gave Gagnon a bad performance review, according to police.
Whether that was the ultimate reason Martin was shot may never be determined, however it certainly would not the first time that an employee lashed out against a manager over a poor performance review.
On Jan. 1, an employee at Suburban Hospital outside Washington, D.C., stabbed his supervisor 70 times after receiving a bad evaluation. In 2007, a NASA employee who received a poor review killed a hostage and himself at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
With the economy in shambles, supervisors find themselves delivering more bad news these days, whether its firings or salary freezes, and employees desperate to hang on to their jobs aren't likely to take kindly to poor performance evaluations. Meanwhile, shrinking budgets mean supervisors have more responsibilities on their plates, and catering to employee sensitivities may be put on the backburner.
Managers can follow a few steps that can help mitigate the risk of employee violence, whether the company is a multinational with large risk management and human resource functions, or a small shop like the co-op in Vermont.
For example, don't fire someone on a Friday because they'll have the whole weekend to stew about it and most likely won't be able to contact outplacement coordinators, career counselors or hear back immediately from new job opportunities, said Richard Plansky, senior managing director for Kroll's Business Intelligence and Investigations practice.
"They don't have immediate access to soften the blow,'' said Plansky, who is also head of Kroll's New York office.
Bruce Blythe, CEO of Crisis Management International in Atlanta, said that "communication is the single best diffuser of violence,'' and reminds managers that employees who may become violent almost always think they're being unfairly treated.
So sidle up with them. Tell them to explain their point and then tell them you'll talk to management about their concerns. Encourage them to talk. If they feel unfairly treated, they'll surely want to explain their point.
"Now they are aligned with you,'' said Blythe, noting that if they feel like they've got someone in management on their side, they're less likely to get violent.
Another idea is to build them up: " 'I know you're upset with your performance review, that tells me you care about your job,' '' said Blythe. Such a move can "reframe the discussion.''
Plansky said that before delivering bad news, risk managers should make sure to look for predictors of workplace violence. Does the employee have a history of violence or mental illness? Are they going through a rough personal period in their lives? Do they have a heart condition? Do they have a gun license?
"It's extremely helpful to get an understanding of what's going on in a person's life before delivering the bad news,'' said Plansky, noting that red flags could cause a manager to do things differently.
Employees who commit violence in the workplace tend to have had known gripes in the days and weeks leading up to the incident and may have been acting strange. So risk managers should make sure that other employees know that if they see something, they should say something.
If a company has the ability to offer severance, it's a good idea to backload the payout -- meaning the employee will get more of a payout in the last weeks of their severance, rather than the first ones.
"Back loading gives the employee the incentive to behave for a long period of time,'' Plansky said. "Time tends to heal or soften the blow. Six months later, they're probably feeling better about it.''
October 3, 2011
Copyright 2011© LRP Publications