Effective Separations Turn Ex-Employees into Valuable Alumni
At Fort Hood, Texas, a U.S. Army major and psychiatrist was promoted multiple times despite increasing concerns and a dismal performance record. At a Burr Ridge, Illinois, trucking company, an employee was told his hiring the week before was a mistake and he was about to get fired. In Aurora, Illinois, a manufacturing plant employee told a coworker early one morning that he’d “kill every motherf***er in here” if he got fired as was planned to happen some six hours later.
In each of these cases, a job performance issue devolved into a violent workplace tragedy that resulted in loss of life, serious injuries, and workplaces forever changed.
These situations are critical opportunities for human resources (HR) and security to partner. They are where our shared interests in safety intersect. Throughout my decades-long career in HR, I have striven to bring security principles into my work. With this in mind, I offer lessons learned on partnering, prevention, and shifting perspectives on the place security and HR often meet: employee separations.
The Cost of Workplace Violence
No matter the size of your organization or the nature of your business, how we say goodbye to employees can be fraught with risk. And that risk does not go away when employees leave our organizations. A former employee with a grievance can cause harm months or even years later.
The costs of workplace violence are high. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 2 million people are victims of workplace violence every year in the United States. Beyond the effect on human life, other direct costs include litigation, insurance claims and rates, and physical damage. Indirect costs include reputational harm, adverse impacts to attracting and retaining employees, and the loss of organizational culture and trust.
As well as potential workplace violence, employees are themselves bringing additional concerns into the workplace. The personal and professional upheaval in recent years has dramatically impacted workplaces, and many of our employees are struggling. A recent worldwide Gallup poll highlighted that 62 percent of people are emotionally detached at work, and nearly 20 percent are outright miserable and actively quitting. As Gallup CEO Jon Clifton wrote in his book Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It: “Being miserable at work can even make your life worse than having no work at all.”
These upheavals bring challenges to our workplaces, and some of them lead to involuntary separation.
Pathway to Violence
Rarely do people just “snap,” violently attacking without cause or a ramping up of tensions. There is a pathway to premeditated violence.
This pathway is not necessarily linear, and people can move up it quickly. The first step is grievance. A grievance, or motive to act, may show in speech, writings, or demeanor. Ideation is when a person has thoughts or fantasies of violence (i.e., “I’d like to harm my supervisor”). When a person researches an attack, they may focus on targets or tactics. The preparation step may involve training, acquiring weapons, and perhaps forewarning friends to steer clear of an area on a specific day or time. Probing can include surveilling a location or testing security. And finally, the attack stage is when the plan is carried out.
A person’s movement along the pathway to violence is often observed by others. Security plays a critical role in addressing people on this pathway. First, however, we need to identify those at risk. This is where security and HR can effectively partner in an organization. Early on the pathway—before saying goodbye to an employee—might be the most impactful opportunity for HR and security to partner in prevention. Together, security and HR can employ tools such as empathy to, as violence prevention expert Dr. Marisa Randazzo wrote in a recent article, provide pathways to reporting instead.
So, It’s Time to Say Goodbye
Ending an employment relationship is likely the most important conversation an organization has with an employee, and such conversations can often be tense and challenging. However, a mindset shift can help reframe the issue; instead of thinking of someone as an ex-employee, consider them as a future alumni member instead. Just like college alumni, a former employee—no matter how short their employment—has a connection with the organization. If they commit harm to the workplace, that connection will long be associated with our organization.
An employment separation done with dignity not only reduces the risk of such harm, but it also brings the benefits of a better future relationship with the organization. From reassuring colleagues to how we treat people (no matter how they leave) to even referring people to other work opportunities, a respectful goodbye makes a difference.
Through the lens of prevention, we might view the ending of an employment relationship instead as the beginning of an alumni relationship.
The personal and professional upheaval in recent years has dramatically impacted workplaces, and many of our employees are struggling.
The time to develop a partnership is before you need it. This certainly applies to security and HR and the frequent concern at a call for assistance literally at the last minute before a scheduled, high-risk involuntary separation.
For those in security, seek out your HR partners before these situations. Learn about HR’s pressures, frontline managers’ struggles, and the organization’s goodbye practices. Bring curiosity and resources rather than judgment and offer ways to support these stressful endings. Consider ways to leverage your HR partnership as a security force multiplier.
Next, ask your partners some crucial questions. How do we want to structure these conversations? How does security fit into them? How do we conduct them with safety and dignity? These questions matter because when these conversations are not coordinated, the risks increase. From sending mixed messages to your future alumni—HR says “Goodbye” but security says “Get out!”—to not sharing and needing security at the last minute when the situation escalates, the time for coordination is well before this farewell conversation.
While every situation is different, there are some general considerations that can help security and HR teams prepare for before, during, and after the farewell conversation. For helpful checklists, see Sean Ahrens, CPP’s downloadable guide, Involuntary Employee Separation/Termination Strategies.
Before Saying Goodbye
Once an organization has made the decision to end an employment relationship, it’s important to plan carefully and act thoughtfully. Whatever your role, you may be part of a meeting or conversation that the person in question will long remember. Some considerations:
Why is the person being separated? Is the decision organizational (reorganization, downsizing) or personal (performance or conduct related)?
Security considerations differ, and a one-size-fits-all approach may increase discomfort for the employee. Someone let go because of misconduct might warrant a different security posture than someone who was laid off for budgetary reasons. For example, one large government agency led a reorganized manager down the hall with a security escort. What the agency described as “standard protocol” during a separation, the former employee described as a “perp walk” of humiliation.
Who will be involved in this conversation? Consider having two people involved—one with a higher position in the organization and respected by the employee and someone else with strong communication and de-escalation skills. The presence of a respected senior manager lends importance to the situation, and the skilled communicator can keep the conversation from escalating.
Weigh the value of a visible security presence against the effect on the situation and the employee. It may be appropriate when a clear safety concern leads to immediate separation, for example. However, a less visible presence is often recommended, both to avoid heightening the tension with the employee and to not unduly alarm coworkers.
What is in your separation package? While leadership may be reluctant to offer a separation package—perhaps viewing it as rewarding bad behavior—a “soft landing” is a critical opportunity to ease the transition and, importantly, reduce grievances. Additionally, severance pay may facilitate time to transition to another job; a reemployed former employee is less likely to fixate on your workplace.
Will you allow the person to resign in lieu of termination? This may be appropriate when the separation is not because of the worker’s conduct and may be an important factor in the person’s future job search.
Consider extending health insurance and employee assistance program (EAP) benefits; these may be a lifeline worth far more than the cost of coverage. For example, a security manager with a large manufacturer worked with HR to make an exception to company policy to reimburse an agitated former employee for an insurance copay. While the amount was small, the payment resolved the situation with an employee increasingly escalating in their anger over a perceived wrong.
Clearly map out your messaging plan. How an individual is seen by coworkers may be very important to the person, so clearly state what will and—more importantly—what will not be shared with the organization. Consider offering the individual a chance to include a message to coworkers in management/HR’s notification. They might value saying goodbye to their personal connections (and of course management has veto power over anything inappropriate). In a situation where the employee may feel powerless, this can give the person control over a part of what is happening to him or her.
Where is the best place to conduct the conversation? Consider the layout of the room and ensure the employee won’t feel trapped. Logistics matter—think about whether you need a location away from colleagues, a room with multiple exits, or seating with easy access to the door.
There are different considerations to keep in mind when the conversation will be conducted remotely. While in-person conversations offer both a sense of importance and the ability to better monitor an employee’s reaction, it is not always possible or recommended. If the person is on administrative leave, for example, it may be best to communicate via video. When remote, keep cameras on, keep settings distraction-free, and coordinate the order of speaking before the conversation.
When do you have the conversation? Think about your organization’s working schedules and logistics for day and time considerations. For example, while Friday afternoon may be less disruptive for the organization, it could leave an aggrieved employee with more time to replay their anger before they can access resources during the next business day.
How do you start? Be brief, focused, and final. The employee might emotionally shut down early in the conversation, so keep it short and avoid defending the decision.
Show compassion, empathy, and understanding—not fear. Strive to maintain the person’s dignity. Remember, it’s okay to apologize, i.e., “I’m so sorry this is ending this way.”
Give the person time to react and ask questions. Scheduling a follow-up conversation for the next day allows the person to think of questions and gives the employer a chance to monitor their reaction.
During the Goodbye Conversation
While ending an employment involuntarily is rarely welcomed, it can be done respectfully with a balance between present respect and future safety. During this conversation, it is critical to maintain the employee’s dignity with the opportunity for an honorable exit.
People have supports or “dominoes” in their life—reputation, family, faith, community, work—that can act as inhibitors to harm. When a person struggles in life, some of these dominoes may topple. According to Gavin de Becker in his book The Gift of Fear, the most important domino to keep from falling, the last inhibitor, is dignity. The loss of dignity, real or perceived, increases the risk of harm because the person can feel justified when the organization has taken everything away. So, while it is important to plan with safeguards, it is equally important to treat the person with compassion and understanding.
When delivering the message, make eye contact, avoid unnecessary movement, maintain an open stance (not crossing arms or legs, for example), and speak with an even, calm tone. This shows engagement and approachability, lowers anxiety, and creates a sense of trust.
Consider your language carefully, including at the end of the conversation. People are likely to remember the last things said in any conversation; “Okay, we’re done” leaves a very different impression than “Thank you for your hard work here.”
When done well, an employment farewell does more than mitigate risk; it can create a positive future alumni relationship. And it shows the person’s colleagues how the organization practices compassion, which helps morale, retention, and culture.
After Saying Goodbye
A professional relationship is at its most dangerous and volatile when it ends, much like a personal breakup. According to a 2018 study from the FBI, more than 80 percent of active shooter incidents occur at work, and nearly half of active shooters identify adverse interpersonal and employment actions as their grievance. While many organizations want to move on quickly from a bad employment relationship, there may be safety reasons to observe the person’s behavior post-employment to gain a sense of his or her demeanor. This can be important when the person may harbor resentment toward your organization or employees.
Consider monitoring social media leakage, which occurs when someone planning to cause harm communicates about their intent to a third party online. Are they posting online threats, direct or veiled? Are they venting and displaying anger toward your organization or employees? This is another great opportunity for security–HR partnership: security may have better tools to monitor for leakage, and HR may have a better gauge of the person’s baseline behavior to watch for escalation.
Consider maintaining an ongoing connection with the former employee. HR is well-positioned to check in on final pay, insurance considerations, and continuation of benefits. The organization can use this communication channel to help the individual navigate a stressful change as well as monitor behavior for red flags.
When done well, an employment farewell does more than mitigate risk; it can create a positive future alumni relationship.
Effective goodbyes also benefit remaining employees, both from a morale and a safety standpoint. When an employee leaves involuntarily, colleagues are often left wondering what happened. When a separation is done respectfully, it shows how the organization treats employees, regardless of the reason. It may reassure employees who wonder how they would be treated if they were having a similarly difficult time.
One organization included in its separation package coaching work with the exiting employee to help them with their résumé and interviews. Not only did the person successfully find better suited employment, but the impact on former colleagues was significant. They viewed their organization as compassionate and supportive of all employees—current and alumni.
Many difficult situations at work can be lessened or avoided by nurturing a supportive culture that encourages open communication and the safety to share concerns. When a situation goes beyond this, it is an opportunity for security and HR and leadership to partner. Nowhere is this partnership more important than in saying goodbye with respect and compassion for the remaining coworkers and the newest member of organization alumni.
Melissa Muir, JD, is an HR professional committed to connecting the dots between HR and security to strengthen the health and safety of organizations. For more than 25 years, she has led people practices as a trusted advisor and creative partner, currently as the HR director for her hometown of Shoreline, Washington, just north of Seattle. Muir presents worldwide on the intersection of HR and security, including presentations on How Not to Hire a Psychopath, Words Matter, and How to Say Goodbye. She is deeply curious about life and trees and is an avid U.S. Northwest walker.