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Heed gut feeling about employee's reaction to termination, expert says

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LAS VEGAS—Human resources executives who are uneasy about how an employee might react to being fired should listen to their gut feeling because they may be right, a psychologist says.

"Ask what's making you feel this way," said Marc W. McElhaney, director, incident and threat management, at Atlanta-based Critical Response Associates L.L.C., who discussed safety considerations in making terminations at the Society for Human Resource Management's annual conference in Las Vegas last month.

Know the employee, "know what the termination means to them" and do not fire a worker in haste, said Mr. McElhaney, who is a psychologist.

Confer on the termination first, he said. "Check out with some of your peers" what the employee is like. "If you have concerns, there's a good chance someone else does, too," and peers may validate that uneasiness, Mr. McElhaney said.

"Understand the level of risk you have," he said. This requires a team approach, despite many people's tendency to feel they handle a firing themselves. "You will come up with a much better plan," he said.

Next, plan the termination itself. It is important to have a plan with which you are comfortable and with well-understood potential consequences because you may have to defend the decision in court, he said.

If possible, have someone besides the worker's direct manager, whom the terminated employee may blame for losing his job, perform the termination, Mr. McElhaney said.

Also speaking at a related session was Dennis A. Davis, president of Vista, Calif.-based Help Center L.L.C., who discussed myths associated with violence in the workplace.

Mr. Davis, a psychologist, said one myth is that workplace violence is random and unpredictable. People will show signs of violence in advance, he said.

For instance, those who may become violent will use racial and gender slurs. This dehumanizes the slurs' object and contributes to the process that results in violence. "Pay attention to how your employees talk to one another," said Mr. Davis.

Argumentative behavior is another indication of potential violence. These are arguments that are based not on logic but on comments such as, "You're an idiot," said Mr. Davis. "Pay attention to those personal challenges."

The potentially violent person also will challenge authority and may think he or she knows how to run the company after three days on the job, said Mr. Davis. This person also disregards company policy as not being applicable to him or her, he said.

The potentially violent employee also feels no sense of accountability or responsibility for his or her actions, instead placing all blame on others. "It's always someone else's fault," said Mr. Davis, who told the story of a job applicant who was 20 minutes late for an interview and blamed his "stupid wife" for not waking him up.

Among myths associated with workplace violence is that anyone can be pushed to it, said Mr. Davis. But short of self-defense or defending a family member, people who are in control of themselves do not injure or kill others, he said.

It is also a myth that verbal threats are not a warning sign of impending violence, he said. "There are some things that rational people...never form their mouths to say," he said. Every case of significant workplace violence has been preceded by the aggressor "telling us exactly what they were going to do," Mr. Davis said.

It is also a myth that workplace perpetrators of violence are "crazy." Most often, mentally ill people are already either hospitalized or incapable of getting a job in the first place, Mr. Davis said.