How to handle a hostile employee

Delivering bad news is part and parcel of working in HR but when an employee gets aggressive, what can you do? One HR director offers advice on how to handle a worker who turns nasty.

How to handle a hostile employee
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.

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