You’re Fired! Words that can trigger violence

Firing a worker, particularly a violent one, is one of the most stressful and often dangerous things an employer must do.

A workplace shooting in a Chicago suburb in mid-February showed just how quickly such a situation can go fatally bad.

Gary Montez Martin, a 15-year employee of the Henry Pratt Co., a valve manufacturer, had been the subject of months of “progressive discipline.” Company officials explain Martin repeatedly broke basic workplace rules.

On Feb. 15, Martin was summoned to a meeting at his job site, where company officials, including the plant manager, human resources manager and a college intern, who was on his first day on the job, were present to fire him. Family members and neighbors later told reporters that Martin expected to lose his job and he was very depressed.

After being told during the meeting that he was being fired, Martin pulled out a handgun and in the space of five minutes fatally shot five people, including two coworkers, who were not in the meeting. Martin ran into the warehouse, where he later exchanged gunfire with police officers. Martin was fatally shot and five police officers were injured.

There are many questions about how Martin, a convicted felon, was able to get and keep his weapon. In 1995, Martin was convicted of aggravated assault and sent to prison in Mississippi after brutally beating his girlfriend. When released from prison, he moved to Aurora, Ill., where he was arrested for various crimes, including domestic violence.

In 2014, Martin obtained an Illinois license to possess a gun, which required a background check. Inexplicably, his Mississippi conviction was not revealed in an interstate data base. But a few months later, when Martin applied for a concealed-weapons permit, a fingerprint check revealed his felony conviction. He was denied a concealed-weapons permit and his state gun license was revoked. It is unclear why Illinois law enforcement officials did not confiscate the weapon he later used to murder his coworkers.

Company officials say they are reviewing both Martin’s hiring and the handling of his termination to determine if red flags were missed, or if increased precautions need to be taken.

“If we have reason to believe that somebody is going to be violent, we take precautions,” a company official told reporters. “I can only assume that we did not.”

Reviewing what happened in this workplace tragedy may help identify ways all workplaces can be made safer in the future.

According to recent government studies, more than 2 million Americans are reported to be victims of workplace violence. Many more cases go unreported.

And while only a few involve mass shootings, such as the one in Illinois, there are many situations that trigger such events. They range from bullying to everyday workplace disputes. Terminations, particularly the firing of long-time employees, can be triggers of violence.

In 2017, there were 458 workplace homicides across the nation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 77 percent involved a firearm.

Clearly, no workplace is immune to such violence. And no plans or safety procedures can assure complete workplace safety. But steps can be taken to help defuse potentially violent situations.

Red flags: Before you reach the point of terminating a worker, look for warning signs or chronic problems, conflicts with coworkers, mood swings, anger, paranoia, sudden deterioration of work performance or grooming or stressful personal problems, such as divorce or financial setbacks. Intervention by employee assistance resources may help resolve some of these problems.

Slow up: If employee assistance intervention does not help and appropriate disciplinary steps have been exhausted, the decision may be made to fire an employee. Take the time to do the firing right. Understand the employee. Engage other managers in identifying the employee’s problems and likely reactions to a firing. Possibly hire an outside consultant to assess risks and develop plans.

Location: A neutral location should be selected for the termination meeting. Post security nearby, especially if the worker has a history of violence. Place a desk between the worker and managers handling the firing. Do not allow the worker to block the exit. Do not take a break, even if the worker asks to leave to use the restroom. A distraught worker may return with a weapon.

Timing: Generally, dismissing an employee in the earlier part of the week is better than at the end. If possible, conduct the meeting towards the end of the day, so the worker can be spared the embarrassment of being walked out in front of coworkers.

Meeting content: Explain in a clear, brief way that the worker is being terminated. Present the worker’s final check during the meeting. This should include any accrued and unpaid vacation or PTO, as well as any applicable separation paperwork. Explain resources available to the exiting employee. Prevent the employee from immediately returning to the workplace. Deliver personal items to the fired employee, or arrange to have the escorted former worker return when other employees are gone.

Practice: Develop a plan that includes time, location and other details. Anticipate the worker’s reactions and develop potential responses. Practice the plan. The more prepared managers are for the termination, the more control they will have over a potentially volatile situation.

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