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Liability Risk: HR Director Threatening Employee

It has come to light from talking to several employees that our HR person threatened another employee with bodily harm in a private meeting last month. The employee was terminated for other reasons unrelated to this incident. I did not believe it at first, but then I asked a few other senior employees and they confirmed the story from the terminate employee who reported the incident to several of them the day it happened. This is now going around the company and we need to take some action. My question is how would you handle this? Since there were only two people in the meeting room, it will come down to a he said/she said situation and that employee is gone now. This HR director is a trusted senior member of the CEO and it will be very unlikley the CEO will believe this either. I did hear through the grapevine the terminated employee may be filing a wrongful termination and/or discrimination claim against the company, so this is going to come out no matter what in a short while. Should the HR person be fired or resign for this behavior? If so, how would you handle this? I made this post anonymous to protect all the parties involved.

Answers

Topic Expert
Wayne Spivak
Title: President & CFO
Company: SBAConsulting.com
LinkedIn Profile
(President & CFO, SBAConsulting.com) |

First and foremost, the CLO needs to be involved along with an attorney who specializes in labor law. Their advice is supreme.

Second, you might want to engage a crisis trained Public Relations individual for both internal and external communications. This type of incident (real or imagined, doesn't really matter) can cause irreparable harm to the Company's reputation.

Thirdly, on advice of counsel, it may be in the best interests of all involved for the HR person to resign, admit no guilt, but state that their ability to function properly has been compromised or something to that effect.

Lastly, the CEO must make a simple but explicit statement that certain behaviors or alleged behaviors can not be condoned. Again, this statement should be made in consultation with both your lawyer and pr person.

- Will it eliminate a potential law suit - NO.
- Will it eliminate potentially bad press - No, but it will mitigate it (the faster everything occurs, the better)
- Will it solve your internal issues - very possibly.
- Will the CEO Statement solve this issue - yes, no and yes. Yes, if the perceived party has left the company, no -- because some will feel the HR person was railroaded and yes - by the public (if it comes to that) in the the company is decisive.

Anonymous
(CEO) |

Thanks Wayne, this is a small private company with 200 employees so I don't expect any PR fallout or news.

My concern is making sure we handle this properly if this HR person does not resign and is terminated so it does not become another case of wrongful termination on our end.

Topic Expert
Wayne Spivak
Title: President & CFO
Company: SBAConsulting.com
LinkedIn Profile
(President & CFO, SBAConsulting.com) |

Hence talk with both your general counsel and a labor attorney. Spend the money now, it will be worth the ROI.

EMERSON GALFO
Title: CFO
Company: C-Suite Services
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, C-Suite Services) |

Things that you may want to ask/know to point you in the right direction ... (pre legal counsel and pre labor attorney). They are going to ask for/about these anyways.

1. What does the policy (Code of Conduct) say? Remember, you can not retroactively apply new policies (if ever). Are there conflict reporting and resolution portions? Were there steps that the terminated employee could have taken? Did the employee take it?
2. Is your HR Director an at-will employee?
3. Was there any other person in the company that talked to the terminated employee about this? Exit interview? You have to recognize that the wrongful termination and the threat with bodily harm are two different things. Maybe you can justify the termination, but you can't justify the threat. Also, one more thing that I remembered, firing the HR Director may be used against you and may be taken as admitting guilt.
4. How was our documentation of the things that happened?
5. Did the terminated employee sign any release forms?

And lastly....everything Wayne said.

There are more, but these are what's currently on my head right now.

Anonymous
(CEO) |

Thanks for all the great input.

What if the HR person denies this conversation ever took place? How can we possibly terminate someone based on hearsay? Yes, we are in a "at will" state but that is not the point.

We have since learned this HR person did throw a pen at another person in another meeting (not in a joking way) and did threaten to dock other employees pay if they made errors inputting orders (not legal of course). So there is some history of odd behavior before this incident.

EMERSON GALFO
Title: CFO
Company: C-Suite Services
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, C-Suite Services) |

Your replies, your wordings and to some extent, your admission, ("This HR director is a trusted senior member of the CEO and it will be very unlikely the CEO will believe this either.") all SEEM to indicate that you are either in denial or don't want to accept the building evidence against the HR Director.

My advice is to get one thing off your plate....fire the HR DIrector. If anything else, he/she is a potential RISK. His/Her job is to mitigate risks for you.....not add to them or be one.

Mark Perlin
Title: Business Consultant
Company: Self Employed
(Business Consultant , Self Employed) |

I think you have already lost valuable time on protecting the company by not acting immediately to get your legal people involved especially outside counsel. There is nothing worse than denial by senior management that will somehow go away or that the CEO will not believe this because he is a trusted adviser. While it may not be true waiting to do something is inviting trouble. As Wayne indicated you need to move immediately - this is a crisis - and you need to act accordingly.

You have to consider the impact on the company in three ways. The terminated employee and any action he/she may bring, The HR director and the impact of terminating or not terminating him and to me the most important is the impact on the remaining 200 employees. This is a defining moment for the company in a lot of ways. You mentioned a few other examples where the HR director acted in ways that seem in appropriate. Maybe there is a lot more there than any of you know.

You have 200 people watching and judging how the CEO and senior management values employees. If you do it the wrong way can seriously damage the company. Although you are a private company I would not overlook Wayne's advice about bring in an outside firm to help you deal with this.

Anonymous
(Finance Director / Controller) |

Mark's response was gold: "You have 200 people watching and judging how the CEO and senior management values employees. If you do it the wrong way [it] can seriously damage the company."

The key here is immediate action and tone setting as other respondents have stated.

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