What Should I Do About This Threat?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an employee who
yelled a threatening remark.
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Question:
I’m a manager and a staff member got upset about some work I gave him and yelled at me, inches from my face, saying, “Don’t make me lose my shit or one of these days there’ll be nothing left here except charcoal!” What should I do about it?

Answer:

It sounds as though you have an employee who 1.) Is rude and disrespectful to his manager. 2.) Doesn’t control his temper. 3.) Makes threats that implies if he gets angry enough he will set the building on fire—and presumably anyone in it.

I certainly think you should report this to the person above you in the organization (a higher level manager or HR Director). Explain what happened, in detail: The date and time this occurred, what was said by each of you, who witnessed it, and what happened after he made that angry statement. Tell them how the angry threat made you and others feel and the effect it has on being able to work comfortably with him. Then, ask them for assistance in dealing with the employee.

Since this sounds like a dramatic and upsetting situation, it could be the matter has already been handled or is in the process of being handled. But, just in case you can still make some recommendations, there are several things to consider:

1. Has he done or said something like this before? If he has lost his temper in such a verbally offensive way before, it should be worrisome to everyone—fellow employees, managers, HR and others. His angry outburst could be a sign of growing anger and frustration that becomes even more abusive or leads to violence. (Some might say that is overly-dramatic, but events across the country indicates it is being realistic.)

If he has never said anything like this and this is very uncharacteristic of him, he may not be a threat to anyone, but certainly should be warned that it can never happen again.

2. Consider the effect this has on other employees. If others know of his behavior or even if they have a hint of it, they may be wondering if something will happen to him and why it hasn’t already—or they may feel more emboldened about their own behavior or performance. (“If he can get by with that, surely I won’t get in trouble for this.”) Some employees may worry about working around him, if he is that unstable—and I can’t blame them.

3. Think about the effect this has on your ability to work with him, especially if you know you are going to be making him upset over something. It’s difficult enough to manage others, without worrying that anything you say could set someone off and they’ll react in a harmful way.

4. Being honest with yourself, did you say something equally provoking which escalated the argument to that level? If so, it could be both of you will need to apologize and talk about how negative such angry yelling matches can be. Or, it could be that you said something, but the employee carried it much further.

If you are directed to formally reprimand the employee, ask for assistance from HR or from your own boss, to ensure you have a witness and to help you develop the best way to give the reprimand and warning. You will want to do it without sounding angry or fearful. Put your focus on telling the employee how inappropriate it was for him to make such a statement and that he is expected to control his angry reactions in the future.

If your organization has an Employee Assistance Program, perhaps he can also be referred to them or encouraged to get counseling about his anger and the way he manages it.

The most difficult part of this could be communicating effectively with him from now on. If he stays employed there you may feel uncomfortable about talking to him. Show your confidence and poise by continuing to talk to him, assist him with his work when you can, and treat him fairly and in a civil manner. You probably will never feel completely at ease with him, but hopefully you can set an example of dealing with conflict in an appropriate way.

Best wishes to you with this situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

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Follow-Up:
Dear Workplace Doctors, thank you for your advice. The matter has now been resolved. 🙂