Bad Firing Fuels Chances of Workplace Violence
by William S. Frank, President/CEO of CareerLab®

Bullet shatters lightbulb
One of my first jobs as a career consultant made a real impact on me. My client was a 30-year-old up-and-comer, and his company had relocated his young family to Colorado. He sold his home in Dallas, and bought a new home here. A few short weeks later, the company closed their Denver office and terminated him without severance or outplacement assistance, essentially abandoning him in a strange city. I knew then that this was going to be a tough business.

It's common for companies to give someone a glowing performance appraisal, award a performance bonus, and then fire the person out of the blue within the next few months—sometimes within a matter of days—citing difficulties with the boss and performance problems as the reason.

It's not uncommon for companies to terminate salesmen, managers, and executives by telephone while they're traveling on business, or the day after they return from vacation. Nor is it uncommon to fire people right before or after Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's—or on one's birthday or anniversary.

On a daily basis, corporations give short shrift to the business of planning and managing layoffs and terminations. It concerns me, because in this era of workplace violence, I believe we must learn to be more careful in order to protect ourselves and our employees from separations that might turn violent. Here is a laundry list of twelve eye-opening events I've seen in my capacity as outplacement consultant:

  1. An outplacement counselor (not from our firm) called a candidate to begin with him before the company had announced the termination, thereby terminating the person by accident.

  2. A mining company called us at 10:00 a.m. and asked us to stop by that same afternoon to provide a “one-hour outplacement program” to someone they expected to be very hostile.

  3. A defense contractor planned to announce a large layoff, and the IT department mistakenly de-programmed the security system too soon. As the employees reported for work, they could tell whether they’d been fired or not simply by inserting their cardkey into the card reader. That card reader drew quite a loud, angry crowd.

  4. A long-tenured retail employee expected to return to work from disability leave the following day. But before she could return, her boss called her on the phone to lay her off.

  5. The HR Director for one of the country’s largest hospitals just told me someone in his organization recently conducted a termination by text.

  6. An outplacement candidate didn’t have to wait for the 5:00 meeting with her boss to be terminated. At 9:00 a.m. she looked at his calendar, and it said, “TERM—NANCY.”

  7. An insurance company terminated a trusted 64-year-old employee with 15 years of service in the coffee shop at Denny’s. Both her boss and the human resources manager delivered the bad news in public. As a final insult, they forbid her from returning to the office to say goodby to friends.

  8. During a downturn in the oil business, a total stranger showed up to fire a high-performing Division Manager for an oilfield service company. The stranger said, “Pack your things and get out. We don’t need you around here anymore.”

  9. An aerospace manufacturer terminated a 15-year engineer who was recovering from hip-replacement surgery. The company didn’t take the trouble to find out that the engineer’s wife was dying of cancer and the couple was contemplating divorce. In the meantime, the family had exhausted all their savings to treat the cancer—the only money they had left was “pocket change.” (Fortunately, this layoff had a happy ending.)

  10. A chemical company called me in the morning to attend an emergency termination in the afternoon. When I arrived, the District Manager said the employee was psychotic, and he had dreamed the departing employee had come back to the company with a gun and sprayed bullets around the place. The manager laughed, and then went in to conduct the termination.

  11. When a bank outplaced a highly-disturbed and potentially violent worker, they were so worried about the employees’ safety they hired a security company to tail the individual after his termination. Yet the manager who retained us kept his phone on voicemail, wouldn’t return our phone calls, and wouldn’t come out of meetings to talk to us when we reached his Executive Assistant.

  12. Eager to add staff quickly, a dental supply company mistakenly hired a psychotic who owned a gun collection. The day of the termination, under the protection of armed police, we conducted the termination, and I explained the importance of thorough interviewing, background and reference checking, and pre-employment testing in keeping potentially violent criminals out of the workplace. I offered to explain more about testing later, but the company did not return phone calls.

We'd like to think that corporate America does a good job of planning layoffs and terminations, but my experience is different. Unfortunately, many companies still treat these crisis transitions as ho-hum events, and thereby endanger themselves and others at work. We can help prevent workplace violence by carefully planning for outplacement.

William S. Frank (Bill) is President/CEO of CareerLab® in Denver, CO—USA. Bill does one thing right: he helps businesspeople maximize their careers. That's it. Nothing else. He works nationally in-person or by phone. Companies hire him and so do forward-thinking individuals. Since 1978, 356 brand-name corporations, small businesses, non-profits, and educational institutions in far-ranging industries have hired Bill to provide Testing & Assessment, Executive Coaching, and Outplacement. If you like his writing, his website includes 200 free articles and offers 1,000 FREE cover letters.

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