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HR Handled Right

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One of my first therapy clients killed herself. The week before, she’d been sitting in my office wearing red lipstick and orange bauble earrings, talking excitedly about flying out of state to see her newborn grand baby for the first time. I spent weeks listening to the tape of our therapy session and trying to figure out what I’d missed. I still don’t know. What I do know is that, more than twenty years later, it still hurts to think about it.

On-the-Job Hazards

We psychologists know the specter of suicide is ever-present in our profession. I don’t think the same can be said for sales managers or accountants or oil refinery workers. And yet, in 2010, 270 workplaces came face to face with a coworker, manager or subordinate who’d ended his or her life while at work.

This doesn’t mean it was because of work; workplace suicides may or may not have been motivated by work-related issues. On-the-job suicides are defined by the location of the decedent when he or she was killed. If the fatal injury took place at the decedent’s place of employment, then it is considered a workplace suicide. And, regardless of what “caused” the suicide, the impact on the workplace can be traumatic. In this article, we’ll take a look at how to handle threats of suicide; in part 2, we’ll look at what to do after an attempt.

If I’m Fired, I’ll Kill Myself

Consider this scenario: You have an employee who, after months of counseling and coaching, was finally fired for tardiness and a poor work performance. When word gets back to his department, several of his former coworkers come to you and say that this employee told them that he would kill himself if he were terminated. By the time you find this out, the employee has packed up his stuff and left the building. Now what?

Was this threat manipulative? Definitely. Emotional blackmail? Probably. Do you have any legal obligation to intervene further? I’m not an attorney but my bet would be – probably not. Last question; how would you feel if he followed through?

As an HR professional, there are times when it is tough to balance the need to protect yourself legally while acting with compassion. In other words, there’s what you have to do and there’s what you should do. Here are some options:

1. See if one of your current employees (former co-worker of his) would check in with him (by telephone; not by visit) to see how things are going. If, during the conversation, it seems as if he’s still “at risk,”contact your local crisis line people, EAP or social services staff to see what assistance they might be able to provide him. If the former employee seems truly disturbed and continues to threaten suicide, consider calling the police and report the situation.

2. If you offer an EAP for employees, make it available to him. While you might not normally do this for most terminated employees, you have nothing to lose, and a lot to gain, in at least making the offer.

3. Heighten security in your own facility. Some suicidal employees decide to take others with them into the afterlife; don’t give him a chance to do that at your office.

I’ve Been Thinking About It

Scenario #2: You have an employee on one of your night shifts who has told you that she is currently seeing a therapist for depression. Recently, she told her shift supervisor that she is suicidal and is afraid to be by herself or around any sharp objects. She has also been moody and unpredictable with her coworkers and will cry uncontrollably for no reason. Now you find out her supervisor has been spending long periods of time talking to her one on one to calm her down when this happens. This is very disruptive, but you’re not sure what to do.

First of all, if she has stated she is suicidal, respect those statements and take them seriously. Meet with her, tell her what you’ve been told (that it’s come to your attention that she has mentioned thoughts of suicide to her supervisor) and ask her about it directly and give her time to explain.

If she admits that she is suicidal (or even that she’s seriously depressed), get her commitment to either call her therapist or your EAP – and have her do so before she leaves your office (giving her some privacy). If she refuses and you believe she’s at risk, let her know you will need to contact 911 or the police to insure her safety. Also, compassionately but firmly let her know that she can’t be at work until she gets her issues resolved because it is clear that she is currently unable to do the essential functions of her position.

In addition, contact your legal to deal about any return-to-work concerns, privacy worries, or liability issues (aware she was suicidal and not doing anything about it).

The Bottom Line

As HR professionals, a suicidal employee can stir up all kinds of feelings – fear, anger, concern. It’s easy to act on these feelings, by either distancing ourselves from the source (let’s fire him for making threats), judging (how manipulative! If he really wanted to do it, he wouldn’t have said anything) or playing savior (I can save him if I listen enough, watch him carefully, etc.) However, what’s best for the distressed employee is also best for us – get him/her to the help s/he needs while making sure the office is safe for everyone.

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