How to handle a hostile employee

by |
Delivering bad news is part and parcel of working in HR – whether you have to discipline, demote or even discharge an employee, there’s always a chance they’re going to take it badly and become aggressive.  HRM asked three HR professionals what they’d do in the dreaded situation…

“I’ve encountered this many times in my career,” reveals HR director Ashley White. “The first rule of thumb is to never deliver bad news in a secluded room.”

“If tempers flare, your next thought must be to remain calm,” says White, consider how you would feel if you’d received the same news.

 “Empathize, but don’t do it in a way that seems insincere,” she advises. “Plan for potential aggressive behavior and think through alternate paths to get you to a better solution if the conversation goes that route.”

“When an employee does become aggressive, it's important to not rise to their level,” says Joseph Campagna, founder of My Virtual HR Director. “You need to remain calm and keep your voice low and level.”

Campagna suggests saying things that might lower their anger level like; "I'm sorry you feel that way," or "I understand that this is difficult news to receive. I want to help you to process this and move ahead positively.” However, he insists HR professionals shouldn’t say anything that will negate the message.

“Emergency situations aside, if you back down or change the message, you are only making it more difficult in the long run,” he warns.  

“If this is not a termination situation, it can be effective to end the meeting,” advises Campagna. “Let the employee take a break away from work and schedule a follow up.”

“The conversation can be something like, ‘I want to reiterate that this should be a positive turning point. It is an opportunity for you to recognize the problem/issue and move forward with a plan for progress. Now that you know, you can correct it and we can move on. Why don't you take the rest of the day to reflect on the opportunity and we can meet again tomorrow to follow up."

Hiring expert Carol Quinn takes a slightly tougher stance – “Investigate, document and, if true, terminate. If you don't, it sends a message that aggressiveness is tolerated.”

Jim Collins might have emphasized the importance of ‘getting the right people on the bus’ but, according to Quinn, it’s just as important to “get the wrong ones off.”

“Many companies fail to see the role they pay in creating their own culture of mediocrity,” says Quinn.

Have you ever had to handle an exceptionally hostile empoyee? Share your story below. 

More like this:

Swearing at work: when is disciplinary action justified?

Negotiation: why your organization needs it now

Employees and alcohol addiction  
  • Sue on 2015-01-22 1:43:25 PM

    We all in our business have experienced this behaviour. For personal safety sake I also have a personal escape strategy. I know where the exits are, my cell is on speed dial and I let my colleauges know I am heading into a difficult situation. IF off site I make sure the managers responsible for the decision are in the room.

    My unionized environment preclude instant firing unless for extraordinary circumstances, which I have done too but not before supsensions while investigating the allegations.

  • John W. Rushton CHRL on 2015-01-22 3:40:42 PM

    Recently I met with an employee for an investigation meeting and I allowed a "friend" to accompany him to provide moral support. Half-way through the meeting the friend turned out to be his lawyer and she & employee went bananas.She is advocating for him.They became very loud and argumentative. I tried to clam them down, finally after 3 times asked them to leave, lawyer refused. I was with an operations manager. I had to demand both leave, but in order to be heard had to raise my voice. Finally got up and opened the door and both still refused to leave. Eventually they did but filed a complaint (ongoing) with my HR assoc (ONT) that I abused them and the ethics of my professional designation. Thankfully the Operations person was there to witness all of this. My lesson learned - walk out and if necessary call the police to get them off the premises

  • Joanne on 2015-01-26 12:41:29 PM

    John, sorry to hear you went through that but I never allow a "friend" when I am doing an investigation I learned the same lesson as you a decade ago.

  • KLee on 2015-01-28 6:35:08 PM

    Employee meetings to discuss performance or termination have no room for "friends" in the room. It has no baring on the "friend" and should be treated as a private and confidential conversation. The employee is no longer in school, needing mom or dad or their bestie to step in - they will be there to support them after the meeting.

    Generally, you will know which terminations have the potential to escalate versus those that will not. Regardless, I always ensure that there is a 2nd party, and that the meeting room be isolated enough to allow for privacy, but not far enough away, that escalated voices cannot be heard. I find keeping a calm, empathetic demeanor, mixed with finality keeps the conversation neutral. I also situate myself closest to the door. I have been in a situation, where an employee has escalated to the point where he could be a danger - knowing the volatility of the employee, I had security available outside the room, and once I stood up and opened the door, they stepped in. The employee very quickly de-escalated and left the premise quietly. You really never know, and it is best to always be prepared.

HRM Online forum is the place for positive industry interaction and welcomes your professional and informed opinion.

Name (required)
Comment (required)
By submitting, I agree to the Terms & Conditions