Planning for the unthinkable

Violent termination at Ceridian a reminder of what can go wrong during dismissals

Stuart Rudner

By Stuart Rudner

Last week in Toronto, headlines were made when a Ceridian employee went on a rampage, stabbing several of his colleagues after apparently learning his employment had been terminated. This horrific incident was a stark reminder to those tasked with dismissing employees that, sometimes, the employee will react badly and that while such an outcome is unlikely, it is always possible that the dismissal will result in violence. So what is an employer to do?

Over the course of my practice, I have occasionally had employers say to me, as they planned the dismissal of an employee, that they were concerned about how the individual would react and wanted to take steps to protect those involved in the dismissal, as well as the workplace in general. Where the dismissal was the result of a complaint by another employee, the concern was even more pronounced. I am pleased to report that none of these situations have resulted in actual violence. Usually, the employer will call me to report on the dismissal meeting and advise that the employee took the news without incident. However, the issue does raise concerns about an employer's obligations both to the employee to be dismissed and to her colleagues.

In some cases, I have had employer clients ask if it would be appropriate to either ask the police to be present at the dismissal meeting or nearby, or to hire a private security guard. While there will be occasions where this is appropriate, it is important to remember that an employee is entitled to be treated with dignity in the course of dismissal. Having police (if they will attend) or security present can be seen as adding insult to injury and, if it is unwarranted, could be used by clever plaintiff's counsel in order to support a claim for extraordinary damages.

Carrying out the dismissal in a manner that is likely to embarrass or humiliate the employee is not only inappropriate, it can result in additional liability. For that reason, we usually recommend that any dismissal take place at a time and place where it is unlikely that the individual’s colleagues will be around. The last thing you want to do is force the employee to go through the "walk of shame," past her colleagues on the way out when it will be readily apparent she has just been fired.

If there is a concern the employee will be upset or distraught (beyond the usual reaction to being dismissed), then it is often advisable to use the services of an employee assistance counselor or other professional that is trained in working with an individual in such difficult circumstances.

Obviously, in the course of dismissal, it is important that the message be delivered in a respectful manner. Employers must balance the need to provide a respectful, supportive environment for the dismissed employee with the need to avoid humiliating them. Calling in several police officers and a grief counselor for the dismissal of an employee that has never given you any reason to think they might react poorly to the news is entirely unnecessary and could be perceived as demeaning to the employee.

At the same time, employers must balance the dismissed employee's rights with the rights of all other employees to work in a safe environment. At the time of the writing of this article, we do not know very much about the background to the Ceridian incident. However, if there is a legitimate concern an employee might become violent upon being advised of their dismissal, then an employer should take proactive measures in order to protect the safety of not only those involved in the dismissal, but anyone else that could become the target of violence. Again, this can be done by carrying out the dismissal at a time when others are not around.

Tips for employers

  1. Ensure every dismissal is carried out in a respectful manner.
  2. Dismiss the employee in a face-to-face meeting, unless the individual refuses to attend.
  3. Do not automatically escort every dismissed employee out of the building without even allowing them the opportunity to retrieve their personal belongings.
  4. Consider whether it would be appropriate to have an employee assistance counselor or other support person available for the dismissed employee.
  5. In the unusual situation where there is a genuine fear of a violent reaction, ensure that there is a plan to protect the safety of those involved in the dismissal and the rest of the workforce.
  6. As a general rule, dismissals should be carried out at a time and place when the individual’s colleagues are not around.

Tips for employees 

  1.  Upon being advised of your dismissal, do not become belligerent or threatening.
  2.  Take advantage of any services that are offered to you, such as employee assistance or outplacement assistance.
  3.  Make note of anything that is done that causes you to feel as though you have been humiliated, embarrassed, or otherwise treated inappropriately.
  4.  Do not cause a scene or burn any bridges; it is a small world and it is always better to be seen as someone who left with dignity.
  5.  Do not sign any offer that is made to you immediately; take the time to review it and obtain advice from an employment lawyer.

For further discussion regarding how to conduct a dismissal meeting, see my previous blog post.

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