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COACHING EMPATHY: Your Best Tool in Preventing a Workplace Shooting

You've heard about the CT school shootings.  You've read the news accounts, watched the 24/7 coverage that makes us all wring our hands and worry about the great unknown.  HR people have a special place in this, since you terminate people every week, if not every day.  Those people feel wronged.  Those people own guns.

I'm not going to tell you the people who walk into a school and start shooting aren't crazy. I'm not going to tell you that the gun situation in America is good or bad.

I'm going to tell you that your best chance at minimizing the probability a workplace shooting happens in your workplace is to coach the people who aren't doing well (and ultimately get terminated) from your company with empathy and a focus on moving forward.

You know the drill.  Bad employee needs to be termed.  Everyone starts locking down for the session where you and the manager deliver the news.  We're coached to get to the point quickly, which is good.  We're also coached to say as little as possible.

Which is a problem if you want to minimize the already low probability your company will be a victim of a workplace shooting or other forms of workplace violence.

The alternative? Seek to coach the person on the fact that while there wasn't a match/fit at your company, the fact that it didn't work out doesn't have to define their professional career. Is there a place where most of the people you terminate can work, be productive and be happy?  For most of the people you term, there is.  

That's what you need to focus them on.  But you can't do that unless you're willing to coach after the termination decision is communicated.  Saying as little as possible makes the person on the other side of the table feel like it's them against your company - and everyone who works there.  Hard feelings ensue, and combine that event with a nasty relationship with a manager and co-workers, and it's clear that a lot of termed employees wish the worst for your company.

And one in a million do more.  What if you did the following when terming a problematic employee?

1.  Communicate the termination decision.

2.  Handle the Transactional details.


4.  Be open and honest enough to say that while it didn't work out here, there's a place out there that's a fit for them - without question.

5.  Give them some resources on what they need to do next to find their next role.

6.  Follow up with them and ask them how they're doing.  Tell them that while it didn't work out at ACME, you know that's not the end of the line for them and they'll land on their feet.  Tell them that's why you're calling.  Help them if you can.

7.  Repeat #6 every month until they land.  Find a way to help their search in some small way.

I know.  It's BS, right?  After all, the more contact you have, the more legal exposure you have, they weren't a good person, blah, blah, blah.  I get it.

But today's not a normal day when it comes to thinking about how you handle people transitioning out of your company.

Want to manage the risk associated with workplace violence from terminated employees?  It starts with coaching empathy from HR pros on the ground.

You don't have to do it.  You'll probably be OK.

One in a million won't.


Sherry C

"while it didn't work out here, there's a place out there that's a fit for them - without question."

This is one of the most important things I have never heard anyone say.

When a person is terminated, they may feel that there is something fundamentally WRONG with them-that they simply may not be employable, period. Not to mention the immediate concerns about food/shelter/etc. The sudden loss of income can cause significant fear, and fear does things to a person's stability.

A manager and/or an HR person acting in a more positive, human manner and providing a glimmer of hope and perhaps even the first clue on how to move forward...that could change the whole world for someone suddenly coping with job loss. I seriously cannot emphasize this enough.


You are advocating the George Clooney approach in Up in the Air.


Hi Joe -

Actually, I'm advocating more than that. I'm advocating not outsourcing those conversations, and a follow up to the display of empathy at the point of term by someone who is actually in charge of the people function.

Something approaching real empathy is what I'm recommending - real empathy with action behind it...

Thanks - KD

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