Termination nightmare: Stabbing rampage raises unsettling questions

Should HR re-think the termination process?

By all accounts, he was considered a nice, normal guy — a family man.

At least, that’s what Chuang “Ray” Li’s neighbours in Mississauga, Ont., told reporters about the computer programmer, who has a wife, a teenage daughter — and a long list of criminal charges around an Apr. 9 stabbing rampage at his former workplace.

Li, 47, is facing charges of attempted murder, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon after allegedly stabbing and injuring four of his former co-workers while being fired from his employment at Ceridian Canada in Toronto.

“He was being fired and I guess then he proceeded to get involved in stabbing some of his bosses and some other employees,” said Det. Daniel Darnbrough of the Toronto Police Service.

“I believe the employees eventually subdued him until the police got here.”

Ceridian, a payroll and human resources firm, said it was stunned by the incident.

“As you might imagine, this is a very difficult time. The entire Ceridian family is shocked and deeply saddened by this incident,” said the organization in a statement.

“We are working closely with the Toronto police department and are offering our full co-operation during their investigation.”

The incident has raised some unsettling questions for employers: If a seemingly normal person can turn so violent during a termination, does HR need to change the way it thinks about the termination process? Can we do anything to prevent those incidents that seem to come out of the blue? Are there any warning signs employers could be missing?

Warning signs

One of the most important steps in preventing or minimizing the risk of such an incident is watching out for warning signs, said David Hyde, a security consultant and threat and risk assessor in Toronto.

“There are standard ones in terms of an employee who is manifesting what I’d call abnormal behaviour… and whose work performance or whose personality goes through some fairly noticeable changes. And the catalyst to that could come from wide-ranging sources. It could be the fact that the employee is going through domestic issues in terms of relationships or other issues away from the workplace, but that’s impacting them at the workplace,” he said.

The change could manifest in different ways — moodiness, defensiveness, punctuality issues, inconsistency, an uptick in customer complaints — but it comes down to the fact this individual is exhibiting behaviours that are markedly abnormal, said Hyde.

If any “behaviours of concern” are present, the employer should conduct a violence risk screening, in which a few key people — perhaps the person’s direct supervisor and HR — come together to discuss the situation.

“We would look at this individual and see what’s going on. What is the level of this abnormal or aberrant behaviour? How concerning is it? How out of character is it? Are there other catalysts in this person’s life that we’re aware of? So that would go through and a preliminary determination would be made: ‘Is this something that we need to be concerned about and need to have formalized steps taken? Or is this something that is kind of explainable when we look at this in context?’”

The employee may need to be referred to an employee assistance program (EAP), called in for a conversation or — in more extreme cases — the employer may need to consult a professional risk assessor or law enforcement.

“Of course, there are other catalysts such as downsizing, things that are going on within the organization, re-organization, difficult discipline issues… then the radar screens should be up a little bit higher for the employer. They should be more (vigilant) of things that may signal a concern,” said Hyde.

“When the employer is going through a period of change like a downsizing… it’s human nature that the managers who work with these employees (don’t) want to have those difficult conversations. But that is what can sometimes lead to something coming out.”

It’s extremely important that managers communicate with employees as much as possible before the bad news is relayed, said Hyde.

“That is where you’re going to see the incipient signs of a threat that may manifest as violence.”

Rethinking terminations

Employers should also take a very hard look at the termination process itself, said David Griffin, a former police officer and Ottawa-based lead investigator, mediator and trainer at HR Proactive.

“There’s a number of aspects to look at. The first is where are you going to have this meeting? So the physical location where this meeting is going to take place. So where is the meeting room located, what’s the physical layout of the room, what’s the seating going to be, are there any objects in the room that could be used to hurt somebody?” he said.

“We wouldn’t necessarily think about it but we have things on our desks that could be, in the wrong person’s hands, used as a weapon against us.”

The room should be equipped with a telephone or some way to call for assistance. In some cases where high-risk terminations or tense conversations are a common occurrence, it may even be appropriate to have a panic button in the room, said Griffin. The interviewers should always have fast and easy access to the exit, and the room should not be one where the door can be locked.

“Another thing we don’t think about is visibility. So are there windows from the corridor into the office or into the meeting area? If we were going to have a meeting with somebody who may become upset, if somebody else hears something, are they able to come to the door and look in and see if everything’s OK?” said Griffin.

There’s also the question of whether the meeting should take place on-site or off, said Glenn French, president of the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence in Toronto.

“Some people will decide to have the termination off-site, at a hotel or some other facility
because they believe in advance that there’s going to be some kind of difficulty. And that’s perfectly fine. If you do it on-site, it’s always advisable to do it in a location that’s away from their primary worksite,” said French.

If the termination is done on-site, that raises the issue of whether the person should be allowed to collect her belongings or be escorted directly off the premises.

“If (you believe) this person will be argumentative and angry and the like, then clearly this is not somebody that you would want to be picking up their stuff from their desk and walking through the worksite… I can’t tell you how often that happens and it’s (done) in the spirit of being reasonable and trying to be helpful, but the individual — even if they are allowed back to their desk — should be accompanied.”

Terminations of employee passes, telephone privileges, Internet passwords and the like should take place while the employee is in the termination meeting — don’t wait until later, said French.

And it’s important to design the process around the information and history you have about the individual, said Griffin.

“Has this person ever made any threats? Do they have a history of violence? Do they have any emotional or psychological (or) family issues that may put them under a lot of duress (that) they may be struggling with...? And that’s not that uncommon in situations where there are performance issues.”

If there is a history of threats or violence, employers may want to reassess how to have that conversation, said Griffin.

“Maybe a face-to-face meeting isn’t going to be the best way or maybe you’re going to have to consider having some security in attendance. And, again, you wouldn’t do that in every situation but in a very volatile situation,
you may.”

After the fact

Another important factor to consider is what happens after the termination meeting ends, said French.

“Most people are not lethal in the actual termination meeting — they may later on become antagonistic. People think that just because you’ve terminated someone and it’s gone relatively OK, then (that’s the end of it). But it is important to be vigilant for I would suggest about a month after, just to ensure the person doesn’t come back,” he said, citing the 2008 tragedy in Vancouver at TallGrass Distributors, when a recently fired employee turned up at the company Christmas party and killed his former boss.

“If someone has been terminated, clearly people would need to know that that person is no longer with the organization. The danger sometimes is individuals like this may tailgate back into the company if they have a locked facility — they know people, so people may let them in. So it’s important after a termination that people be reminded about security procedures, about not letting someone in who doesn’t have a pass, even though you may know them,” said French, adding that the person’s spouse should not be allowed back on the premises either.

Employers need to have a plan in place in case the individual does return to the workplace, said Griffin.

“If there’s any potential for violence, what is the safety plan, what are the steps that will be taken in the event this person returns to work? Is there the potential he may stalk somebody in the parking garage, let’s say? Do you need to consider the safety of the staff who may be leaving later that day? So it’s not just ‘OK, great, the person left, that’s done with’ but is there a possibility this person may return?”

It may seem like overkill but all these things are important to consider because every termination has some degree of risk, said Hyde.

“Any termination has risk attached to it. And most terminations don’t involve people throwing things or even violence — it’s very unusual. But sometimes even the most benign termination that one wouldn’t expect to cause that, can cause that,” he said.

“There’s no such thing as perfect security… it’s easy to criticize but we just don’t know enough to know. This employer, (Ceridian) — they may have done everything right here. Either way, this is a very good reminder to employers that even the most benign termination does have risk attached to it.”


The HR professional’s view

Lauren Chesney, an HR professional at OMERS in Toronto and former Canadian HR Reporter staffer, has additional thoughts on this story and what human resources can do to reduce the chances of a violent incident, the warning signs to look for and how to react. Read more here.

Latest stories