It’s National Anger Awareness Week and with the recent tragic Christmas party case, there couldn’t be a better time to look at how to manage anger at work. Nearly two thirds of office workers have experienced office rage and 45% of staff regularly lose their temper, according to figures from the British Association of Anger Management. Christine Gannon, employment associate at DMH Stallard Solicitors looks at what employers can do when someone’s out of control.

Recently, a tragic case involving violence at a Christmas party hit the press. In the case, the managing director of a recruitment company got into an argument with an employee (who was also a childhood friend) whilst drunk at the hotel after their Christmas party. The managing director punched the employee twice, knocking him to the hotel’s marble floor, and

Christine Gannon, DMH Stallard Solicitors.
Christine Gannon, DMH Stallard Solicitors.

leaving the employee with brain damage. In this case, the court held that the argument did not take place in the course of the employee’s employment, so the employee could not claim damages on the company’s insurance.

So what should an employer do if an employee (even the boss) is out of control at work?

As is often the case, prevention can be key. Recognising potential anger issues and dealing with them promptly before they escalate into something more serious, should be the goal.

It is important to step back and recognise that anger in the workplace can be a symptom of other issues, including possible workplace conflict, dissatisfaction with work; an underlying illness such as stress or depression; or feelings of not being heard.

This means, you should:

  • Train managers to look out for the warning signs of anger, such as negative outbursts, and  in methods for resolving conflict;
  • Act promptly if there are any early warns signs of anger, such as a private quiet word with the employee or an informal discussion to see whether there are any underlying issues and/or if anger management counselling may be appropriate.
  • Develop policies which clearly set out the standards of behaviour expected from staff and the types of behaviours that will not be tolerated, such as verbal or physical aggression to others;
  • Ensure that your workplace culture supports and encourages the right behaviours, and that you deal robustly with employees who act in any way aggressively;
  • Ensure that staff are fully aware of the internal procedures available for resolving issues and complaints, such as a grievance, bullying or harassment procedure.

In a case where anger completely escalates out of control into verbally or physically aggressive behaviour or violence, for example to colleagues, it would be appropriate to treat this as a disciplinary issue.

Immediate steps

If the incident has the potential to lead to a significant risk of harm to your staff, including the employee who is ‘out of control’, you should consider involving the police and/or contacting the employee’s emergency contact to seek to diffuse the situation.

Should we suspend and how do we investigate?

Due to the possible risk of further harm, normally, yes. Where anger steps over the line into verbal or physical aggression in the workplace, this is potentially gross misconduct.

While the employee is suspended, you must investigate promptly, impartially and in an even-handed way. What level of investigation is required will depend on the individual circumstances, including:

  • Is the conduct admitted by the employee in question?
  • Were there witnesses from whom statements can be taken?
  • Is there any other evidence such as CCTV footage?

What action should we take against the employee?

Even if you are satisfied that the employee has been verbally or physically aggressive, having followed your disciplinary procedures, you should not automatically conclude that the employee should be dismissed.

Each case must be considered individually and factors that you should take into account when deciding whether to dismiss or not, include:

  • Are you as an employer able to show that you take a consistent approach on these types of incidents – is there a zero tolerance policy, or could the employee point to an employee in a similar situation that was not dismissed?
  • Does the employee have a clean disciplinary record?
  • Are there any mitigating factors, such as work or external pressures?  Does the employee have very long service?
  • Was there provocation? This would not of course excuse any aggressive behaviour, but might mean, for example, that it would be reasonable to impose a final written warning instead – possibly with a requirement for the employee to undertake anger management counselling.
  • Was there a potential underlying medical reason which may have some bearing on the outburst? If so, it may be appropriate to get a medical opinion to get a better understanding of the employee’s health situation. Failure to do so could lead to a discrimination claim.

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