Dealing with a Hostile Employee
A medical health professional's threat assessment frequently can corroborate the employer's own assessment that the threat is indeed credible.
- By Mark A. Lies
- Nov 01, 2006
UNFORTUNATELY, many employers eventually will have to deal with
a hostile employee who may threaten co-employees with verbal and
non-verbal conduct. There are a number of actions the employer should
consider to protect the employees at the workplace, as well as the
physical security of the facility.
Acknowledge Co-Workers' Complaints
While many employers do not have a formal workplace violence
prevention policy (although they should have a stand-alone policy or
combine it with a general anti-harassment policy), in a majority of
situations, co-employees eventually come forward to report threatening
or hostile behavior directed toward them or to co-workers. These
complaints cannot be ignored and must be promptly investigated. If not,
a tragedy could occur.
Commence an Investigation
The employer must rapidly develop an investigation strategy to
determine whether the reported threatening or hostile behavior is
credible, and if so, what action should be taken. Initially, the
investigators should have familiarity with employment law, an ability
to conduct a competent inquiry to seek the underlying factual
information necessary to make an assessment, and, equally important,
the ability to maintain confidentiality.
At the outset, the employees who come forward with information
should be told that the employer will take all necessary action to
protect them against retaliation and that the investigation will be
maintained as confidentially as is possible, subject to disclosure in a
court or administrative proceeding.
While the investigation is proceeding, the employer should
consider whether to temporarily suspend (with or without pay) the
employee against whom the complaint has been made. This step should be
seriously considered when the threats are specific in nature as to the
action that is articulated (e.g., "I'm going to come in here and shoot
the entire mailroom") or directed at specific individuals by name or
groups of individuals by description (e.g., "I'm going to kill Jane Doe
or all of the employees from ______ [country, religious, ethnic
Removal of the employee during this period prevents the occurrence
of an incident, it is hoped. The hostile employee should be told not to
return to the workplace or to communicate with anyone at the workplace
until he or she is authorized to return or engage in such
As the investigation continues and if credible threat
information is received, the employer should seriously consider
involving the local police authorities at the earliest opportunity.
There is a well-recognized legal privilege to communicate with law
enforcement authorities as long as such communication is truthful and
made in good faith. In many instances, the police authorities may
launch their own investigation and intervene directly to deal with the
During the investigation, the employer should inform the employees
involved (particularly the "target" employees) that they are free to
contact the police if they believe it is appropriate and that there
will be no adverse action for making out a report.
Reaching a Conclusion
Assuming the investigation identifies credible information of
threatening behavior, the employer must timely conclude its
investigation and decide the action to be taken, including:
- verbal warning
- written warning
- extended suspension
The investigation information should be documented and preserved, in the event that litigation arises.
To buttress its decision, the employer may wish to engage a
medical health professional who is experienced in threat assessment and
qualified to provide forensic testimony. A threat assessment frequently
can corroborate the employer's own assessment that the threat is indeed
credible. The medical opinion also can undercut a subsequent contention
that the employer's assessment was based upon stereotypes of mental or
emotional disabilities and was an unlawful motivation for an employment
Assuming the decision is made to terminate, the employer may
wish to seriously consider termination by telephone (confirmed in
writing) or by letter. There is no requirement to terminate an employee
in person, particularly where the individual may threaten or harm the
person who conducts the termination or get loose within the workplace
to retaliate against the employees whom the hostile employee suspects
to have made the complaints.
If the termination is done by letter, the employee should be
informed in the letter that the investigation is complete, that it has
revealed violations of company policies (identify them), and that the
employer must regretfully terminate the employment relationship. The
employee also should be told not to return to the premises or to
communicate, directly or indirectly, with any employee at the workplace.
The letter also should identify a contact person at the company for
completing any benefit documentation (e.g., COBRA insurance coverage).
Finally, the employee should be told that any personal property will be
returned to his or her residence by common carrier.
At the same time the termination correspondence is being sent to the
employee, the employer may wish to notify the police authorities that
the termination is occurring and that additional patrols in the
workplace neighborhood would be appreciated.
Hardening the Work Site
The employer should consider enhancing work site security after
the termination, including restructuring access to the work site,
changing security access codes, and hiring outside security or off-duty
police for a short period after the termination to reassure the
remaining employees and provide rapid response capability if the
terminated employee returns to the site, seeking to retaliate.
There is no one guaranteed process to deal with a hostile
employee. If the employer follows the guidelines outlined above, it
should substantially reduce its liability for an incident resulting
from the termination of a hostile employee.
This column appeared in the November 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
Mark A. Lies II (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner in the Chicago office of law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP. He specializes in occupational safety and health and related employment law and civil litigation.