The fight started in the hallway. Within minutes, the fighters stormed out of the building and began beating the heck out of each other in the parking lot. A supervisor and two employees ran out to separate the combatants.
Before the fight ended, all five had injuries ranging from bloody noses to cracked ribs.
Senior management considered firing the combatants but chose not to, because both were long-term employees and good at their jobs. Two days later, a second fight erupted, resulting in immediate terminations and costly settlements to injured co-workers.
What if this same situation happens in your company -- and one or more employees cross the line into one-time violence? Should you automatically fire the employees?
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Regardless of your combatants' track records as employees, if their future actions threaten other employees' or customers' safety, you need to act quickly but not rashly.
Conduct an immediate, impartial, thorough investigation. How did the fight begin? Who swung the first punch and were both employees on the offensive or was one defending himself?
Generally the fighters express immediate regret and assure managers "it won't happen again." Don't bank on that. By asking detailed questions, you discover issues that, if not dealt with, may erupt into future violence. In this example, the fighters had the presence of mind to move the fight to the parking lot, but not the impulse control to stop it altogether. Ask how come.
Once you have objectively assessed what happened, determine a fair discipline. Your options include firing the combatants, suspending them for several days to four weeks without pay, sending them to anger management training, reassigning one or both to jobs in which they will have little or no future contact or a combination of these alternatives.
The disciplinary action you select serves as a fair consequence for the violence and sends a message to others in your company concerning fighting. However you handle this situation sets a precedent in your company for how you will handle other fights. Whatever you decide, make sure your actions comply with any written policies your company has concerning violence.
If you don't have a policy, draft one.
Employers without a written policy banning violence who have only a step disciplinary policy, or employers without written policies, face a wrongful termination lawsuit should they fire a long-term employee for a first offense, particularly if the fired employee can convince a jury he only responded to another's provocation. At the same time, employers take on huge potential risk should further violence occur if they only mildly disciplined a first offense.
Discipline your combatants according to your policies regardless of who they are. If you treat key managers or good employees differently and don't have a solid business reason for doing so, your policies aren't worth the paper they're written on. If this means terminating the combatants, do so. You may allow terminated employees to become eligible for rehire if they complete an anger management or other counseling program. You also may consider allowing them to take leave without pay while participating in the program.
The bottom line -- when violence erupts conduct an immediate investigation and act. Employees and courts expect managers to maintain a workplace in which employees feel safe from physical threat.
-- Lynne Curry is a management trainer, consultant and president of Alaska's The Growth Company Inc. in Anchorage. Email her at lynne@thegrowth company.net