Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Office Stabbings in North York - Could this happen in your office?

According to media reports, Chuang Li was arrested this morning after stabbing multiple co-workers after being fired from his job at Ceridian.  Last I heard, all the victims were in stable condition, though one had suffered life-threatening injuries.

Ceridian is a payroll and human resources support company, so I would hope and expect that they would have the appropriate policies and processes in place to maintain their own workplace safety and manage high-risk terminations.  And maybe they do - sometimes, even the best efforts can't prevent a tragedy.  But if they didn't, it wouldn't be the first time human resources experts operate on the basis of "Do as I say, not as I do."  (Lawyers in particular are notorious for that.)

Still, there's a certain irony, with this happening at a company that offers third-party EAP services.

You see, firing an employee isn't simply a matter of walking in and saying "You're fired."  A proper dismissal is a planned performance.  You have the termination letter prepared beforehand, you call the employee in, you have one management representative conducting the meeting and a second observing and taking notes, you stick to the script, explaining in broad terms the decision that has been made, telling the employee the contents of the letter, reminding them about EAPs and other services that are available, and suggesting that they get legal advice if you're offering a separation package.

That's what the employee sees, but even that is a fraction of the process.

First of all, consider what else you need to do to transition the employee out.  Cancelling security passes, recovering keys and company equipment, etc.  To the extent that you can do so in or at the time of the meeting, that's best.  Ideally, you should have IT terminate the individual's computer access during the termination meeting.  (That way, there's no risk of them returning to their terminal and sabotaging files, stealing files, or sending a venting mass email throughout the workplace.)

Next, consider the timing of the dismissal.  Recognize that the employee will have to leave the workplace, and will reasonably want to recover his personal effects.  It is best if that can be arranged at a time when minimal people are in the workplace - that minimizes the stress and discomfort for all involved.  What I've sometimes seen done in small workplaces is a 4:00pm termination meeting, while everyone else in the office is sent home.  (On the other hand, being able to address the termination, and the next steps moving forward, with other staff promptly is also important...and don't count on them not finding out right away - the office rumour mill is all-knowing.)  Day of the week is also something to consider.  Fridays are generally considered poor choices.

And another highly important pre-termination step - arguably obligatory under the Occupational Health and Safety Act - is to assess whether or not it will be a "high-risk" termination, and to take additional precautions accordingly.

Bear in mind that it's not necessarily easy to tell how a person will react to being fired.  It's an incredibly stressful event for most people.  I've dealt with many many dismissed employees, and while their reactions vary, it's really common for people to say that they don't clearly remember the termination meeting - a combination of shock and disbelief, and things get pretty hazy.  Of those who were permitted to gather their belongings immediately, it's almost unheard of for people to not forget something.  It often sounds almost dissociative, which is pretty scary when you think about it.

So, while you can't overtly act like you expect every dismissed employee to go on a violent rampage, and while such violent incidents are quite rare, it's a possibility you always need to be prepared for.

How to Approach a High-Risk Termination

There are a number of steps that you can take to address a high-risk termination.  Not a comprehensive list, but a sampling of the kinds of steps that you can take to minimize risks.  I am able to assist employers on a case-by-case basis to help develop a strategy that suits the particular needs of their workplaces.

(1) Ensure little-to-no contact with colleagues

It's a soft rule of terminations to minimize post-termination contact with colleagues in the workplace.  That becomes a much firmer rule for high-risk events.  If there's something that the employee needs now from their workstation - jacket, medication, keys, etc. - have a manager get them.  Beyond that, make other arrangements, either for the individual to come back after hours (with discreet supervision, of course), or for somebody else (a friend in the workplace, perhaps?) to gather his or her effects.  See them out the door with as little fanfare as possible.

(2) Offer support to the employee

This is a good idea generally, but all the more important for high-risk terminations:  Provide EAPs, offer a taxi chit to get them home safely, and make an effort to make the transition easier for them.

(3) Keep the meeting room safe

Lawyers who meet with high-risk clients know well that you never put the client between you and the exit.  ( as I say, not as I do...)  I've had colleagues who have had near-misses that way.  This is similar.  For a high-risk termination, as much as you don't want to make the employee feel cornered, safety comes first, so take the seat nearest the door.  That way, if things become unpleasant, there's a safe escape route.

(4) Have security on-hand

Not every employer has on-site security.  That's not a problem - there are third-party service providers that provide security services for precisely this kind of event.  Use them.  Had Ceridian retained such services, that likely would have prevented this incident, or reduced its severity.

What Happens If You Fail?

There are a lot of consequences to an incident like this.

Where there's a death or serious injury in the workplace, the Ministry of Labour has to be notified.  They will investigate, and determine whether or not to lay charges.  Fines for serious offences are severe, routinely into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  And the burden on an employer to prevent such incidents is high.

As well, expect your policies and programs to be closely scrutinized.  Many employers have still not complied with their obligations to implement policies and programs dealing with harassment and violence in the workplace, and even those who have are often sadly unaware of the obligation to review these policies annually.  Failure to comply with these obligations can cause trouble at the best of times, but the consequences will be particularly severe if a violent incident occurs.

I am able to assist employers to develop and maintain the appropriate policies and programs.

Beyond that, there could well be civil liabilities to the injured employees and families of employees, not to mention disruption and lost productivity in the workplace (relatively minor issues in the scheme of things, but still a significant cost).  Even if the employer successfully defends against such claims, that's a significant cost - consider the Giant Mine explosion of 1992.  The employer was ultimately found not to be liable, but it took close to 20 years of litigation to get to that point.

Ceridian's likely to be under the microscope after this event.  As I said, it's entirely possible that they did everything right.  Nonetheless, the Ministry is generally pretty good about finding something wrong.


This blog is not intended to and does not provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.

The author is a lawyer practicing in Newmarket, primarily in the areas of labour and employment law and civil litigation.  If you need legal assistance, please contact him for information on available services and billing.

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