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Getting Even

Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that employees are increasingly reacting to their layoffs and terminations with varying degrees of revenge. HR leaders need to create processes and procedures that minimize that risk.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009
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A woman, anticipating an impending layoff, makes claims of sexual harassment against her supervisor and sends them off in an e-mail to corporate headquarters. An investigation later determines the claims are unsubstantiated.

A terminated IT employee embeds a virus into the company's computer system -- timed to go off two weeks after his departure so it wouldn't look like he did it.

An employee -- permitted to pack up his belongings after being terminated -- flips a switch behind a panel that everyone else had forgotten about and shuts down the business' operations for about three days, while company leaders try to address what they thought was a "virus."

A high-level IT employee, after being terminated, dials in from home, downloads competitive information, deletes some files and disables some applications.

These are all actual examples of employee sabotage and retaliation that took place after terminations.

"This stuff happens and I think it's just a question of employers not appreciating where people can do harm -- identifying where their risk is, anticipating it and preventing it," says Merrily Archer, a labor and employment attorney in the Denver office of Fisher & Phillips.

Archer says she sees most problems occurring with technology.

"There are a lot of things they can do, but most folks are going to make their pain known on the computer -- or use their computer in some way," she says. "Computer sabotage has been the thing that I've seen more than anything else."

Nevertheless, there are other ways employees strike out -- sabotaging machines and work equipment, sharing proprietary information with competitors, harassing workers and supervisors who remain, and more. In this tense environment of layoffs, cost-cutting and lost retirement, it's incumbent upon HR to get wise to the risks and prevention strategies.

Things Are Heating Up

Just what constitutes workplace sabotage runs the gamut. Tim Dimoff, founder and president of SACS Consulting & Investigative Services Inc., in Akron, Ohio, and an expert in high-risk workplace management, tells of one employee who left dissected mice on the managers' desks.

"With this bad economy ... we've seen a spike in employees who are disgruntled about terminations," Dimoff says. "We're getting called almost every other day to handle angry, violent or potentially angry or violent employees."

It's possible, he says, that the increase may be simply proportional -- there are a lot more people losing their jobs now. What's definite is the fact that threats are on the rise.

Others agree.

"Companies should recognize that people are very, very tied into their jobs and that, while this [letting someone go] might be an economic decision for the company, it has very, very real emotional consequences for the workers," says Archer. "[Employers] have to expect that there is going to be a subset of their workforce or the people they're laying off who are not going to respond particularly well."

But not all are convinced that the potential for retaliation and sabotage is especially serious right now.

"I think terminated employees today feel more despair than anger," says Jathan Janove, an author and employment-law attorney and partner in the Portland, Ore., and Salt Lake City offices of Ater Wynne. "They realize that numerous other people are in the same sinking boat. I don't know if misery loves company, but I'm seeing more of a sense of resignation than the kind of anger and bitterness that drives employees to seek revenge."

Be Prepared, Proactive

Still, the unstable environment and the fact that so many businesses are feeling the negative impacts of the economy means it pays to be proactive.

"Planning pays," says Archer. "The time you invest in thinking through and contemplating and figuring out the risks will pay off.

"Maybe nothing will happen, but at least you've got a plan and have thought it through."

Janove says HR professionals are especially important to the process and "can play a valuable role in prevention, detection and correction."

"Their familiarity with the workforce, including status and prior histories of employees, gives them an opportunity to learn where the employer may be vulnerable, what employees might be tempted or inclined to commit acts of sabotage, and what needs to be done to nip problems in the bud," he says.

Dimoff agrees.

"I have a saying -- the current past predicts the current future," he says. "By that, I mean that if you have an employee who's given you problems, chances are, when you terminate that employee, [he or she is] going to continue with that attitude." On the other hand, he adds, "someone who has always been a stellar employee is usually going to be a stellar person."

Shabby Treatment

Ironically, says Janove, the fear of sabotage has inadvertently led some employers to act in ways that increases workers' desires to commit such acts.

"I've encountered situations," he says, "where employees found out they were losing their jobs via a group email message or because they could no longer log into their computers. I've seen situations where employees who'd never broken the rules were summarily marched out the door, escorted by security and paraded past co-workers carrying boxes of their personal belongings."

Rick Maurer, an Arlington, Va.-based expert in change management and organizational health, says sabotage "happens when people are angry -- so you have to look at why they're angry. Often, I believe they're angry because they were treated shabbily -- they were kicked out the door."

Sabotage is not inevitable, say Maurer and others. And there is much that human resource professionals can do to minimize risk to their organizations.

A former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawyer with a master's degree in social work, Archer says she looks on the process as "commercial divorce."

"This is just domestic relations in the corporate world -- dealing with people, it all comes down to that," Archer says.

If reductions in staff are handled in a personal, respectful way, it goes a long way toward not only mitigating the risk of sabotage, but also the risk of employment claims down the road, she says.

"I basically tell everybody," Dimoff says, "that there are two methods to termination -- one is called the 'cliff method' and the other is called the 'ramp method.' " With the cliff method, you "basically hand them a cardboard box, say, 'Put your stuff in it, we'll watch you pack it and escort you out; even though you've worked here for 20, 10, seven years and we trusted you the whole time, we no longer trust you.' "

The ramp method involves letting employees know that there may be layoffs and the reasons behind the potential action, and communicating with them regularly. Then, it means sitting down with affected individuals and pointing out the organization's appreciation for the positive things they've contributed, offering to write a nice letter of recommendation, as appropriate, and going over the severance package, COBRA, etc.

"It's just common sense -- treat them like decent human beings, communicate with them and give them dignity when you terminate instead of embarrassing them," says Dimoff.

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Sometimes, organizational leaders -- even HR professionals -- become so involved in the administrative details of terminations, they lose sight of the human or emotional aspects of those situations.

Maurer says HR professionals "need to look at the process and say, 'If I were going through that process, what would be my emotional reaction?' [They should] try to put themselves in the shoes of the person going out the door."

Tim Mohr, a principal with BDO Consulting in New York, and a certified fraud examiner and licensed private investigator, says that, even in situations when an employee is being released for "some form of misconduct ... whatever it is -- you still treat them like a human being and with respect."

Dimoff tells of a recent situation where he "spent an hour and a half defusing and interviewing [an employee who had made threatening statements following his termination] and determining his level of potential retribution."

"On a scale of one to 10, I took him from about an eight to about a four by the time I left," he says, adding that his defusing method consists of some very basic and simple techniques: talking, listening, accentuating their positive attributes and being clear about what negative behavior will bring them.

But then, Dimoff says, he was sent a copy of the letter the lawyer had drafted to send this employee. The letter, says Dimoff, included comments such as "due to your harassment," "due to your intimidation," etc.

"I said, 'No, you don't need to put all of that in there. The guy's agreed to leave, you've agreed to give him unemployment, he's not an eight or nine anymore -- he's a four. Just send a letter, thanking him for his mutual cooperation, that you appreciate his last six to seven years of employment and you wish him well. If you start beating this guy up again, you'll send him back up to an eight,' " he says.

"In the majority of cases, most people -- if they're treated correctly -- are not going to be happy, but they won't take it out on the company or the management," says Dimoff.

Practicalities

While being aware of the emotional impact of losing a job and ensuring that departing employees are treated with dignity, HR is also responsible for taking certain administrative steps to minimize risk to the organization, says Archer.

The first step, of course, is to have a carefully developed plan of action -- taking into account the "who, what, when, where and why" of each situation. When will the employee be told? Where will the conversation take place? Who else will be there?

Archer says HR needs "to take an active leadership role in how the news is going to be delivered and to provide training for managers about what to do and what not to do. I cannot understate what a critical role HR has in managing all of the risks in a reduction-in-force, which includes sabotage."

Mohr strongly recommends not allowing employees to go back to their work areas after the termination discussion, where they can "linger around or start talking to people. Move them out quickly."

Employee access to company systems should be immediately terminated -- e-mail, phone systems, computer, key/card entry, and so forth.

"It sounds pretty simple, but I can't tell you how many times e-mail has been left on for two days and now you have somebody replying to or sending out e-mails -- even mass e-mails -- from your work address," says Mohr.

Above all, say the experts, conduct the RIF with dignity.

"Remember that we're in the toughest economic times that most people have probably experienced in their lifetimes," says Dimoff.

"This is the first time many people today have experienced something like this. When you are going to downsize or whatever, give them the opportunity to ventilate, make sure you communicate and make sure you don't cause them to lose their dignity and you won't have problems in 99 percent of the cases."

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