Backfired

Fire an unstable employee and it's your head that may roll.

Forensic psychologist Ronald Ebert, Ph.D., has heard the story, time and again, of the employee whose productivity plummets and behavior becomes unpredictable. The firing is in the offing when the manager starts to receive death threats by phone.

Or it can be less direct. Ebert consulted on a job where an employee left a message on a computer screen that read, "I'm going crazy, I can't stand it anymore, I am going to kill my boss." "It was a not-too-subtle cry for help," says Ebert.

He attributes the rise of workplace violence, or threats, to the easy availability of guns and the belt-tightening pervasive in American businesses.

If a shaky character has to be fired, his advice is: Have several people in the room so one person will not be the target of his rage. He also suggests that managers allow the person to say his peace. Not only does this give people an opportunity to vent, but it gives the manager a chance to listen for violent intent.

Have phone numbers of counselors on hand if an employee wants to seek help, at the employer's expense. But don't force therapy on people; it may just stoke their anger.

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Ebert also arranged for mental health professionals to be present during firings to observe and provide services right then and there. "That gives the employer control in an otherwise powerful situation."

"People do dramatically fall apart and start talking about bringing AK-47s to work," says Ebert. "But it's a rare organization that wouldn't respond to such a threat." The correct response: Take them seriously and call the police.

But workplace violence is uncommon. "It's just that publicity is so widespread," notes Ebert, "that people's anxieties are heightened."

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