HR in the Line of Fire

On Friday, November 14, a former employee entered the offices of SiPort, a Silicon Valley semiconductor manufacturer, and opened fire, killing three people. The employee had been fired that day. One of the lives cut short that day was that of Marilyn Lewis, the HR Manager.

This awful situation got me thinking about what we face in HR when we have to deliver bad news to employees. My personal experience includes employees who have yelled, screamed profanities, threatened my life and on one occasion, a pair of hands around my throat. No kidding.

Violence HR in the workplace is not all that rare. An insightful article by Shari Caudron enumerates how often these situations arise for HR. One HR Director was stabbed to death by an employee with whom he met that afternoon, an HR Administrator was gunned down in her home, a VP of HR shot. Its frightening how vulnerable we are.

During an average week, 20 people are murdered while at work and 18,000 more are assaulted, according to the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety in Bethesda, Maryland. In fact, homicide is the second leading cause of on-the-job fatalities. While the majority of these tragedies are the result of robberies caused by members of the general public, a good 10 percent of them are perpetrated by disgruntled employees seeking revenge.

It shouldn’t be surprising that HR is often in the literal line of fire. Whether or not HR made the decision to terminate someone’s employment, HR is often the one to deliver the message to the distraught employee who has nowhere else to vent his/her anger at the situation.

How a termination meeting is handled is key to how an employee reacts in any situation, but particularly in those situations where the employee is agitated or ashamed. The best terminations are those who allow an employee as much dignity on the way out that the employee had on the way in.

I personally strive for those terminations where I never hear from the employee again. Not because I don’t want to, but rather, that I don’t have to because all of his/her needs have been met. Even so, as the article states, hanging on to a bit of caution is always necessary.

In the end, the only way to avoid becoming a target is to think seriously about how easily you can become one. Don’t wait until a situation gets out of hand to start planning for violence. That’s like searching for the water main in your house after a pipe breaks. Instead, recognize the threat exists always.

In the meanwhile, my heart breaks for Marilyn and her family. While this is little comfort, It seems that she made her mark on the world and was doing what she loved, as demonstrated in this statement by SiPort:

Marilyn Lewis served as the HR manager ”and was the glue that held the company together. She managed a variety of human resource and administrative functions including recruiting, payroll and vendor management. Marilyn joined the company in 2005 and was a key contributor to the growth of SiPort,” according to SiPort.

Rest in Peace Marilyn. The HR community will miss you.

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