Unstable Employee

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about unstable employee:

I have an employee (A) who has made false and very derogatory claims against another employee. Employee A said that Employee B made threats of violence (shooting him). My investigation indicates that these are false claims. How do I handle employee A who has made these false claims? Employee A appears to be very unstable.

Signed, What’s Next?

Dear What’s Next?:

An answer to your question calls for the advice of an insightful psychologist and a smart attorney. Our site focuses on workplace communication, but doesn’t give psychological or legal counsel. However, we can suggest several steps you might take before you act:

1. Check with your company’s policy and precedence for handling an “unstable” employee. Also prepare a list of incidents that have caused you to label employee A “unstable”.

2. Document how you went about and what you learned in your investigation of these claims made by employee A that employee B had threatened to shoot him and made other derogatory claims.

3. I assume you are A’s boss. This matter likely this is not simply a matter for a boss, but should be one that is best handled in conjunction with Human Resources.

4. Human Resources and/or personnel will probably take steps to separate the two parties, just as is a practice when one employee accuses another of sexual harassment. From what little detail you provide, it is hard to predict what might escalate to violence, but that is a possibility; and therefore, you are wise to involve HR in what you as a supervisor/manager should do.

A threat to do physical injury and/or to shoot someone is a crime. HR and/or your legal department should provide advice on how to handle such threats. Also one or the other of those departments should provide guidance of how to handle an employee who makes a false claim of a threat to shoot. Most likely a three-stage disciplinary process is not followed for serious acts as these.This particular incident most likely is a topic of gossip within your work group, and you as a leader, in light of what you learn from HR and your superiors, can decide if and when it should be confronted by your work group as a topic. My instinct is that approaching it openly and honestly in a team meeting will help prevent gossip and distortion.

I expect that you have reflected on the context and interaction that led to the false threat to shoot and other accusations. Undoubtedly incidents such as these are learning experiences. Working through this experience will inform you about how to handle this individual and what might prevent similar problems in the future. It’s not secret that conflict is inevitable within a work area. You probably realize that conflict can be seen as something to be avoided or as an opportunity to clarify and debate courses of action. What might a superior do to manage and prevent destructive conflict? Destructive conflict tends to arise and escalate when individuals are stressed about performance and don’t have frequent open communication within their work group, sessions that are facilitated by a boss who is sees him/herself (and is seen by his/her team) as a coach. This is to suggest that you can assess if your work group could benefit from regular skull sessions that openly talk about how well you are communicating as a team and what might be done to make that more effective.

Admittedly, these remarks don’t provide a clear answer to your question. What they do suggest is that you need to confer and act in keeping with your organization’s guidance. Handling an employee you have come to see as unstable entails special consideration both of that individual’s well being and of your work group’s safety. Please keep us posted on how you handle this situation. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and that spelled out means we act in the best interests of all concerned.

William Gorden