If a coworker, who is bright & very capable, demonstrates a pattern of behavior not suited to the work he/she is responsible for, to the point that their behavior puts them at risk of being let go, is there a sign, or signs, that this person may pose a significant risk to others besides themselves? I am not someone who usually thinks in these terms but I have been become aware of this free floating anxiety and I can’t define what specifically has brought it on. Any thoughts?
I’ll start my response with the reminder that we are not mental health professionals or attorneys so our advice is based solely on our experiences and opinions about workplace issues. Now that I’ve said that, I’ll point out that an early indicator of what is problematic behavior leading to a crisis is concern and worry by co-workers, friends and family, based on subtle changes and unusual actions which they notice because of their close observations over time.Other indicators are the things you mentioned in your first paragraph about problem behavior. A stable, emotionally mature person does not continue to behave in ways that put them at risk of being fired.More obvious indicators that an employee may become so unstable as to do something harmful:*The employee says things that are threatening, or mutters threats. *The employee repeatedly talks in strong terms as though he is a victim of mistreatment by others. *He seems to feel helpless and hopeless and his depression seems to increase. *He obsessively talks about specific people or situations, seeming to blame them for all of his problems. *He mentions violence in other offices and indicates understanding or sympathy for the employee.Those are not sure indicators, nor is it an inclusive list, but any of them would cause a reasonable person to be concerned.Whether or not those indicate a “significant” risk to self or others couldn’t be known for sure, but certainly do indicate things are getting worse not better, and that managers should intervene before there is a crisis of some kind.*Your coworker may continue down a destructive path and be fired or forced to quit. *He may simply lose his influence and become even more ineffective at work, but linger there being unhappy and reducing work quality for everyone. *He may be so distracting to others that their effectiveness is harmed or they quit. (Your worry is a sign that things have already gotten to that point.) *He may take it out at home either verbally or physically. *He may break down emotionally at work and cry, be angry or act out his problems in other ways, without physically causing harm. *He may alienate himself more and more and have to find a completely new environment to live and work in. *At the extreme he may harm others or harm himself, out of revenge, anger or frustation.On the positive side, he may also see the problem or have it pointed out to him strongly, get assistance or deal with it on his own and return to his former, more appropriate self at some point. There is also a chance that your perception of it is incorrect and that things are not as severe as you think. (That would be a good thing!) You may not be aware of work that is going on behind the scenes to deal with this matter. Or, it may be that you are so aware of it now you are sensitized to everything that happens.Even though you say you have a free-floating feeling of anxiety that you can’t define, you probably could verbalize it. Think about facial expression, subtle nuances of speech, your observations that the employee is behaving very differently than the norm, or that things are getting worse and worse but the coworker clearly does not realize it, and any of the indicators mentioned earlier in this response.After you have found a way to put into words your concerns in addition to your feelings, talk to your supervisor or manager about it, according to your level in the organization. Point out the impact this is having on you and your work. You can’t be working as effectively as possible if you are worried about workplace violence or a workplace crisis! In addition, no one employee should be the focus of concern because of inappropriate behavior, as this one seems to be.At the very least, others should be alerted to your concerns so they can adjust their own behaviors accordingly.For example: *It is time to take more decisive action about the employee’s behavior or performance, rather than letting it drift along further while his stability decreases even more. *If there is an employee assistance program, perhaps a referral should be made or the employee counseled about what is avaiable. *Supervisors and managers should be more cautious about how they handle corrective actions or conduct interviews. *HR or Legal, if there are functions for those, should be involved, to consider what needs to be done, within employment law and organizational guidelines. *Supervisors and managers should be made aware of their responsibilities for the well-being of the workplace, including for this employee and others.As a co-worker you should continue to behave courteously and in a friendly manner, but not add to his agitation or his feelings of grievance against managers. If you have had a negative relationship with him, communicate enough to be courteous and appropriate. Do not gossip, speculate or stir up others about him, except to talk to his supervisor. Probably there is already some talk, but at least you can limit your involvement.And, of course, you should continue to observe to see if something happens that indicates you should leave the area and get assistance. It likely will not come to that, but it would be foolish to ignore all of your feelings about it, if you are being logical and rational yourself.Don’t let your concerns be shrugged off, if you really do have something to base them on. If you don’t receive a serious response and you can document things that can be acted upon by managers, go higher in the organization to talk to someone about it.Best wishes with this situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.
Tina Lewis Rowe