The Problem Employee

Lesson 4: Topic 1 of 14

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If you do not respond firmly and swiftly to violent behavior, you leave yourself vulnerable to a lawsuit if the violent employee physically harms a coworker, vendor or customer. The argument against you is that by not removing the violent employee from your workplace, you allowed a potentially violent situation to develop.

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Type 3 (“lateral” or “horizontal”) violence is not going to be mitigated by any of the tools that can help with the other categories; since the assailant is one of your employees, he or she is cleared to bypass barriers and has free access to the buildings. No one thinks twice about this person’s presence the way they might (and should) when seeing a strange face on the property. Therefore the ideal means of eliminating Type 3 violence are to (1) prevent it from ever happening by minimizing widely-recognized triggers to violence or, even better, (2) never onboarding a violence-prone person in the first place. 

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As to the former, research into this issue has shown some commonalities among those who commit workplace violence, even across socio-economic backgrounds and working in widely disparate industries. Among other things, the assailant tends to:

  • Feel aggrieved at real or perceived injustices at work
  • Have a sense of disengagement and alienation, distant and disconnected from coworkers
  • Feel stress due to workplace environmental conditions – such as loud noise, high temperatures, poor air quality, excessive crowding
  • Be in financial distress
  • Receive affirmation (from some significant person, or group of people) that violence is an appropriate means to resolve problems
  • Possess or have access to a weapon

There may be nothing you can do about the last three points, but the first three are to a certain degree under your control. If the environment is overwhelming, get input from staff and make efforts to improve them (ear plugs, fans, etc.). While not expecting them to become friends you can take steps to encourage employee engagement. And put in place clear policies, communicate them, and enforce them equally. 

Along the lines of enforcement, there are always times when employee discipline is necessary. The best way to handle it ― with anyone, not merely those whom you fear might be triggered by it ― is to ensure that disciplinary action is:

  • Prompt; it must quickly follow aggressive actions
  • Certain; staff must be confident that it will without doubt occur
  • Strong; it has to be sufficiently unpleasant to the persons who receive it 
  • Legitimate; as the saying goes, the punishment fits the crime

“When punishment is delivered under these conditions,” writes psychologist and consultant Robert Baron, “it can be highly effective in deterring subsequent aggressive actions by the persons who receive it.”