Have you ever been attacked at work? Physically or verbally?  Unfortunately, as Human Resources, we are often the bearer of bad news, which means we are often on the receiving end of an employee’s frustrations. Those frustrations at times can (and do) escalate.

Many years ago, an employee I was terminating became so angry at being fired that he jumped over the desk that was between us and tried to hit me.  I had anticipated some pushback, but not to that level. Luckily, there was another person in the room during this termination discussion who was able to effectively put a stop to the attack.

For a while there, it seemed as if HR was constantly in danger.  People were getting assaulted, verbally abused, and sometimes shot at. However, HR wasn’t alone. These frustrations often affected coworkers too. For example, an employee who was having disciplinary issues went back to their department and took their anger out on their coworkers in violent ways.  It was a scary time to be in HR.

Nowadays, these situations seem to happen much less frequently, but there is always a risk because we are dealing with people. People can do unexpected things when placed in stressful situations. However, HR professionals can and should do everything they can to ensure that there are few to no surprises when it comes to giving what an employee will consider bad news.

Sometimes these situations can’t be avoided and it is vital to know how to de-escalate a tense situation to avoid tempers from boiling over. First and foremost, it is important to say that if you feel threatened or endangered in anyway – call 911. However, in most stressful or tense situation, try the following de-escalation techniques:

  1. Say helpful things, like, “I can see that you are upset.  I am here to help.” or “I am here for you.  Please let me help you – how can I help you?
  2. Listen. And really listen. Hear what is being said.  Giving the person an opportunity to be heard can go a long way towards calming them down. Let them speak until they have said what they needed to say.  Keep interruptions to a minimum. Repeating what was said to you. This is effective in letting the person know you were paying attention. For example, “You are upset because your coworker called out for the 3rd time this week and you now feel you are buried with unnecessary work and stress. I understand, and I hear you.
  3. Offer to work with the employee to find a solution. Using the above as an example, you could say, “I will call and see if we can get some help for you today.” or “I will help you with this project.” or “We can extend the deadline on this to remove the stress factor.
  4. Consider sending the person home (with pay) for the remainder of the day.  Be clear this is not a punishment, but a time to step back and cool down.

Afterwards, when things are settled and everyone is calm, which may be a day or two later, conduct an autopsy without blame.  Find out what happened that lead to the tense situation and the employee’s frustration and take appropriate steps, if needed, to avoid this situation from occurring again.

As previously mentioned, we don’t want an employee to be surprised.  Addressing performance issues immediately, creating a path to succeed through training and feedback, and open communication will go a long way to maintaining a peaceful and productive environment.