Tempering high-risk terminations

Reducing potential for violence, sabotage when firing workers with red flags
By Martin Jaekel and Linda Bilotta
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/21/2014

In September 2010, Yvonne Hiller, a line worker at Kraft Foods in Philadelphia who had been on the job for 15 years, was suspended for bad behavior. She was escorted out of the building by security following a heated argument between co-workers.

Hiller, who later testified she thought she had been fired, returned to the building shortly after the incident and opened fire, killing two workers and injuring a third.

Have a look at the sidebar on page 20 — these were just some of the comments made during Hiller’s trial and found in news articles. Many of the points represent common red flags, stressing the importance of a well-established in-house assessment plan, outreach program, termination process and research prior to suspension or dismissal.

The knowledge that Hiller possesed a gun could have changed the outcome of this event or, at the very least, played a significant part in its handling.

Surveillance or the presence of law enforcement might have also been factors that could have prevented this tragedy.

Seventeen per cent of self-reported incidents of violent victimization occurred in the workplace, according to Statistics Canada’s 2005 General Social Survey — Victimization. These incidents included sexual assault, robbery and physical assaults and added up to 356,000 violent workplace incidents in 2004.

In situations with a high-risk individual, an employer often prefers to have the termination and exit interview face-to-face, conducted by an experienced, external professional. The primary purpose in retaining an outside professional is to reduce conflict — but it can also yield beneficial results for both the terminated employee and the employer.

Engaging a professional to conduct the termination and exit interview may also assist in gathering feedback on any problems within the organization and provide a mechanism to defuse any unresolved issues that might escalate to violence. This is especially true in situations where the departing employee is known to have unstable behaviours or a tendency to become volatile.

Dismissals that are considered lower risk are often completed by HR or management personnel who may have little experience in conflict resolution. However, with an identified high-risk termination,
HR needs to take diligent steps to protect itself, employees and the organization’s reputation from harm.

Identifying a high-risk employee

Unlike the United States, Canada has experienced limited cases of terminated employees returning to the employer location with an intent to injure or kill.

However, in addition to the stresses an uncertain economy presents, there are any number of reasons why an employee could become violent in the workplace or return to the employer to inflict harm.

For this reason, it is incredibly important that HR professionals be trained on the common characteristics of potentially violent and threatening employees, as well as on developing procedures for dealing with these identified employees during and after termination.

There may be warning signs that cannot be ignored or warning signs that go under-reported by anyone within the organization. These signs might be the obvious, such as bullying, bizarre statements and verbal or written threatening behavior, but employers need to be mindful of the less obvious life-impacting events such as drug and alcohol addiction or compulsivity.

Other potential warning signs include prescription medication for personality or behaviour disorders, divorce, deaths, self-esteem issues or other significant changes in family and lifestyle.

As high-risk employees are identified, it is important to be proactive in information gathering and analysis. There may be a need to consult with psychologists with specific experience in assessing workplace violence, or initiate background searches and inquiries through an investigation agency to identify any safety concerns.

Possible searches and inquiries could include:

•a review of the pre-employment screening information and resumé

•soft conversations with past employers

•monitoring social media sites

•conducting public searches to identify court actions, financial strain, media mentions

•informal meetings with colleagues to better gauge the environment without being direct to the specific employee.

After the employee leaves

Another tragic example of the importance of proper monitoring within the first two days of termination is the case of Benjamin Banky, a co-owner of TallGrass Distribution in Vancouver. In December 2008, Eric Allen Kirkpatrick shot and killed Banky, his former boss, at the company Christmas party — the day after he was fired from his job.

Similar to the murders solved on A&E’s The First 48, a reality show that examines how detectives solve a murder, the first hours — and up to the first two days — following a high-risk termination are vital. Though it is common to hear the questions or gossip amongst employees, simply waiting to hear the answers is not enough.

Protecting yourself, your employees and the company in those first hours is a duty owed when you know a high-risk, terminated employee has the capabilities of harming not just herself but other employees — or assets of the company.

Once a high-risk employee has been identified, compiling information should provide a significant picture of the employee’s overall capabilities to inflict harm on employees, company property or equipment.

This research should include the development of information concerning weapons owned or the employee has access to, or even the physical threat of harm based on comments and behaviours displayed in the work environment — especially where an employee, such as a supervisor, has been targeted.

Tracking, monitoring social media

Social media investigation is also critical. Tracking Facebook comments, Twitter and other websites can provide warning signs and invaluable information into an employee’s background, state of mind and interests before termination is completed. Monitoring these sites in the period immediately following termination is critical.

Consider conducting surveillance immediately and for the next two- to three-day period to monitor the activities of the former employee. Surveillance should be initiated from the employer location once the employee is escorted from the building, and continue for whatever period is deemed warranted.

Monitoring emails and phone calls to the company will also help identify the extent of the risk.

If steps such as these had been taken in the cases of Hiller and Kirkpatrick, those tragedies may have been prevented.

Protecting intellectual property

The focal point of the high-risk employee’s activities will vary depending on each person’s situation. In a case where the high risk is not for violent behaviours but an information or intelligence breach, the focus will not only be on the employee’s behaviours but more so on who they are meeting with (competitors) and what locations they attend.

Protecting company information or intelligence is vital, as is equipment, which can all be compromised at significant cost to jobs and revenue.

And though a thorough pre-termination investigation is essential to protecting the corporation, its brand, proprietary information and employees, a thorough pre-employment screening program beyond a criminal record check is equally important for the same reasons.

Martin Jaekel is president of Whitehall Bureau of Canada, a Hamilton, Ont.-based national professional investigation agency. Linda Bilotta is a senior investigator and assistant manager of Whitehall’s Vancouver office. For more information, visit www.whitehallcanada.com.

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WARNING SIGNS

Could it have been prevented?

Here is a look at some of the facts in the case involving Yvonne Hiller, who returned to work and shot three people, killing two, after being suspended (from court testimony and newspaper reports.)

• She suffered from a “long, festering mental illness” and believed her co-workers had been poisoning her for years.

• She argued with co-workers on the day she was suspended and was escorted out by a security guard.

• She was scared the day of the shooting — “She told me this woman kept following her around the building. She said, ‘Mom, I don’t feel safe.’”

• She allegedly had an ongoing dispute with the victims for months, accusing them of spraying her with chemicals and deer urine.

• She had a gun in her car.

• Hiller and her family painted a picture of a woman tormented by mental illness that was exacerbated by her co-workers.

• She had no criminal history but had at least one previous physical confrontation with an employee.

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