Are You Threatening Me? Verbal Abuse and Workplace Violence

by Joni E. Johnston, PsyD

How do you know when verbal threats in the workplace need to be taken seriously? When should you fire the employee and when should you give him or her another chance? Here's what you need to know about dealing with threats from employees.

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Image source: BigStockPhoto.com

There isn't a person alive who hasn't said something in the heat of an argument that s/he didn't really mean. Often times it's a threat; a parent threatens too big a consequence or a spouse threatens to leave. Issued too often, these empty threats can certainly undermine a parent's authority or a spouse's credibility. However, all parties involved usually know the likelihood - often very slim - that the threatener will actually follow through.

But when threats enter the workplace, it's a whole new ball game. There are jobs at stake, potential lawsuits to ponder, and two sides to every story. Overreact and you could lose a good worker (or a better lawsuit); under-react and you could lose lives.

Verbal Threats: When are They Serious?

The most serious verbal threats are those that are genuine, credible, and directed specifically at someone in the workplace; in fact, immediate termination should be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the best response to these kinds of threats. However, evaluating the seriousness of even the most direct threats requires something of a judgment call. For example, threats accompanied by specific plans about how the employee will carry them out are serious. Obviously, for an employee to provide that kind of detail suggests that this is not a spontaneous remark; this is someone who has thought this through. Similarly, threats of violence that are directed at, or include, members of the intended victim's family are not the kinds of statements you would expect from a generally even-keeled worker. Of course, it's not only what workers say but how they say it.

Threatening gestures add power and credibility to verbal threats. Telling a coworker, 'I'm going to bash your head in' is going to feel a lot more threatening when uttered while waving a hammer. It's also important to consider the worker's track record; courts typically give normally well-behaved workers the benefit of the doubt while workers with a history of conflict or violence get less slack for a threatening comment. The same should be true of employers.



Err on the Side of Caution

When in doubt, it's always better to take a threat seriously than not. No matter what the circumstances (family problems, history of mental illness), employers are not required to tolerate threats in the workplace and, in fact, can be held liable if they do. Practically, this means taking whatever steps are necessary to ensure employees are safe. When immediate termination isn't warranted, employers still have a lot of leeway in terms of ensuring a safe work environment.

For example, as a condition of continued employment, an employee can be required to attend counseling, allow the employer to relate to the counselor what the work behavior has been, allow the counselor to confirm that the employee is complying with treatment, and sign a last chance agreement. (The last chance agreement should spell out the communication between the employer and counselor, the expected behavior, and clearly state that dismissal for repeated behavior is not negotiable.) You can also require a fitness for duty certification from the counselor, just as you would a medical doctor for a medical illness.

Teach Your Employees How to Report

HR often complains that employees don't report workplace threats until it's too late. Employees complain that managers, and HR professionals, don't take their reports seriously. One way to bridge this gap is to educate your workforce, not only on what behaviors should raise concern, but what information will be useful to HR in terms of deciding upon the appropriate response. As a minimum, threatened employees should report:

  1. When, where and at what time the employee received the threat;
  2. What was the exact wording, if possible, of the threat;
  3. What was his/her initial response to the threat;
  4. Have there ever previous incidents with the threatening employee; and
  5. Has the employee ever made any other threats?

The Bottom Line

Preceding the 2 million workplace assaults each year are 6 million instances of employees being verbally threatened. Clearly, being threatened by an employee is not that unusual; an effective response can ensure that the violence ends there.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D. is a clinical/forensic psychologist, licensed private investigator, and CEO of WorkRelationships, an employee relations training and consulting firm. This firm, established in 1991, specializes in difficult employee issues and provides workplace investigations, management training, and executive coaching. http://www.workrelationships.com

 
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