January 18, 2011

The Toughest Business Conversation You Will Ever Have

By Paul Bieber

I tend to write some fun and silly blogs. This is not one of them. I have thought about this blog for a couple of days and it is vitally important for all glass shops, indeed, all companies.

Last weekend we witnessed a horrible tragedy in Tucson. People killed for no other reason than being in the wrong place. People injured, lives changed forever and a renewed discussion in our country on violence, guns and mental health.

I have my own opinion on guns and will not share that as this is not a political blog. Violence in the workplace and the mental health of your employees is relevant.

The alleged assassin certainly had a history of mental health issues. His Community College records clearly attest to this. His friends, interviewed on TV news all concurred. Yet he did not search out nor did he get motivated towards helping himself.

Do you have a Jared Loughner working at your firm? Is he (or she) working in another department down the hall from you? Have you often joked that you didn’t want to be in the building the day that management finally fired him?

Ownership and management have a responsibility to provide a safe workplace, not only for protection from getting cut from glass, but also a workplace that is free from attacks of violence. We have all heard the stories about a terminated employee coming back to extract vengeance. This can (and does) happen anywhere. There is no magic bubble around your company that will protect you and your loved ones. Not only do you have the responsibility to provide the safety, but as owners and managers, you may be more likely to be victims.

If there is a person in your company who you feel is a potential danger to them self or to your company what can you do? And more importantly, what should you do?

You can fire them and hope they get a job somewhere else. You will even give them a long severance and a good reference and hope they become someone else’s problem. (I did this once and today I still wonder what has happened…after last weekend this came back to mind and I now know that it was wrong.)

You can ignore the person and the problem and hope he/she leaves on their own, with maybe a small push out of the door. I have done this too, but never felt bad about it as I just would think, “Well, they weren’t a good employee and I gave them ‘career’ counseling’ to get a better job”. I never thought of these people as dangerous.

There was one occasion in my career that is relevant. We had one employee that was just off the wall. I was actually afraid to fire the person for fear of retribution. I felt he was unstable mentally and would cause harm. (How he got hired is another story for another day…). I talked with our insurance carrier and got a full understanding of the mental health rider in our company’s health insurance plan. It covered 30 days of inpatient care and (I think) 60 out patient visits. Our company was in New York which had a fairly strong law on companies giving mental health as part of their insurance. At the time, many states allowed insurance to completely waive mental health care, and most companies did indeed waive it. Today, all insurance covers mental health equally with that of physical health.

I met with the employee in a casual setting (although I had a another employee waiting outside the door in case of trouble) and explained what I perceived to be the problems with his employment at our firm. I told him he was good employee, but his interpersonal skills were really weak. We got around to how to improve them, and I brought up that maybe he should seek counseling on some of the issues that effected his life. He got upset, to say the least. But after continued conversation he calmed down. I explained I was not calling him sick or unbalanced, but that I felt he needed a professional’s help, just as if he had a broken arm.

To make a long story short, after a couple more meetings with him in my office, he said he would think about it. I never brought the topic up again as over the next six months his work attitude improved. A couple of years later, he came to me and thanked me.

What about the employee in your shop today. Learn about your insurance. Talk with your best business friend and get advice on presenting this to your employee. Practice with another person who takes on the role of the employee. Call your personal physician and get a recommendation to a psychologist or psychiatrist for you to make an appointment with. At that meeting, explain the situation and get their advice on how to handle the situation. This is probably the most important step for you to take.

Your goal is to ‘invite’ the employee to learn more about the help that is available to him/her under your medical plan. You will probably get push back. Explain to your employee that you think it is in her/his best interests to explore the options, that it would help you to better plan the company’s future relations with the employee. Give the employee some time to think. Don’t force the issue with your first meeting. Give the employee the phone number of the mental health hot line from your health insurance company. Most insurance companies have this option.

Don’t recommend an individual doctor or medical professional for the employee to see. Let her/him speak with their own doctor. If they don’t have one, get the numbers of many local psychologists from apa.org, the American Psychological Association. Follow the links on the home page and you will get the results for your area.

There is a lot more to this topic which we will save for another day, but we must close with one thought. If the employee storms out of your office, refuses to try to improve and your still feel uncomfortable with them in your workplace, then it is time to close the relationship. When you do fire the person, have a trusted person in the office with you, and an extra employee outside the door. Don’t give the employee a notice that you will meet in three days. Just do it. Escort the employee from the premises. Advise the rest of your employees that a change has been made. If you feel that this employee may cause trouble, discuss options with your local police department or guard service.

I hope to hear from anyone who has had similar circumstances and what you may have done, or wish that you had done.