Dr Bev Smallwood

Articles Library: Leadership

How To Deal With a Troubled and/or Potentially Violent Co-Worker or Employee

How to Recognize the Signs of Emotional Instability and/or Potential For Violence

There are no absolutes, but a combination of these signs definitely raises a red flag that you are dealing with an “at risk” co-worker.

  • Signs or talk of extreme stress;
  • Significant mood swings;
  • Personality changes;
  • Feeling of being victimized by supervisors or the entire organization;
  • Paranoia;
  • Depression;
  • Behavior inappropriate to the situation at hand, especially unwarranted anger;
  • Signs of alcohol or drug abuse;
  • Carrying of a concealed weapon;
  • Involvement in a troubled romantic relationship within the workplace, particularly if it is unreciprocated and obsessive;
  • Inability to take criticism;
  • Expressions of hopelessness;
  • Desperation about financial or personal problems;
  • Productivity or attendance problems;
  • Sabotage of projects;
  • Identification with people who use violence as a way of dealing with problems;
  • Threats of violence;
  • Any violent behavior in the workplace, toward people or inanimate objects.

How to deal with a troubled co-worker:

1. Observe patterns and understand the person’s emotional triggers. When you work closely with someone, you can observe what seems to upset the person. Use this information to know what subjects to avoid when possible, or to alert you to the types of situations in which you need to use extreme diplomacy.

2. Don’t take the person’s behavior personally or make the problem worse by overreacting. An emotionally unstable co-worker can be extremely irritating. Don’t overreact by taking the behavior personally. Recognize that the behavior you are experiencing is “the way he/she is”. Call on all of your best coping skills to keep your cool around an unstable individual so that you don’t create an even bigger problem.

3. Stay courteous and respectful in all your interactions with the person. If the individual’s behavior is affecting your peace and your ability to work, you may choose to provide some behavioral feedback to the person, focusing on job-related behaviors rather than motives or thoughts. Simply describe what’s been happening, how the co-worker’s behavior is creating a problem for you, and respectfully request change. Finally, make an offer to contribute to the solution, asking the person for suggestions about what you need to do differently. This additional step may reduce the person’s defensiveness.

4. Discuss your concerns with your supervisor, and if you have safety concerns, talk with HR or Security. Your supervisor needs to know about persistent problems in the workplace. Before you talk to your boss, prepare specific, behavioral examples of the problems that have occurred. Your supervisor may suggest ways to handle the situation, or he/she may want you to talk to other officials if the situation looks dangerous.

What are the responsibilities of the manager in preventing dysfunctional personalities from making the workplace toxic?

1. Monitor the behavior that impacts teamwork, quality, and customer service. “Attitudes” get shown in behavior. When that behavior impacts organizational goals like customer service, quality, or teamwork, it should be confronted. You can’t talk with employees about what you “think they’re thinking”. You must focus on observable behavior and performance.

2. Conduct a performance problem discussion with the person. Provide feedback on how the behavior impacts organizational goals, and give suggestions for change. Involve the employee in a two-way discussion of how the problem can be resolved, and make an action plan. Follow up to be sure the situation is improving.

3. Utilize employee assistance programs as an aid to improvement, not as an excuse for not changing. Employee assistance programs are a terrific resource. They provide a confidential place for the employee to deal with stresses and become more effective in relating with others in the workplace. However, the employee should not be allowed to excuse behavior by simply claiming, “I went to that employee assistance program like you said. What else do you want?”

4. Be willing to terminate an employee after they’ve been counseled and do not take advantage of opportunities to change. When an HR professional or manager has used good progressive discipline techniques, the employee has both the choice and the resources to change the problematic behaviors. If the person does not follow through, termination may be the only option. In essence, the employee has done the firing by the refusal to take advantage of opportunities given.

5. Prepare all workers to deal with difficult co-workers.

6. When violence is a threat, use Security resources. Alert your company’s Security or even the police when there has been an actual threat of violence or when you suspect that potential is there. Always have two people present at a termination. Don’t neglect security all the time in these times when incidents of workplace violence are all too common.

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist and professional speaker who is the author of “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me.” Visit her website, www.DrBevSmallwood.com; or contact Bev at 601.264.0890 or by email, Bev@DrBevSmallwood.com. Also connect with Bev on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and her blogs, Shrink Rap and New Morning Devotionals.

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