How to deal with emotional outbursts in the workplace

Jan. 17, 2003
In this edition of In the Trenches, life gets difficult when unexpected and uncontrolled emotional outbursts explode in the local Acme plant.

Acme's market share started its decline a while ago when Ajax Company, an aggressive new competitor, came out of nowhere and commenced its merciless competitive race. Ever diligent, the folks at Acme headquarters out east didn't need a two-by-four across the noggin to realize this out-of-control business threat demanded a rapid response. And respond they didin a style that by now has become an American classic. First came the hiring freeze, closely followed by a salary freezeat least for the exempt employees. Next came a spate of irregularly timed and seemingly random layoffs that required more than a year to run their course.

The survivors had little choice but to work longer hours just to keep up in what they now call "the sweatshop" or "the treadmill." In a much ballyhooed gesture hyped as the solution to these difficulties, Acme made some nominal investment in computers, networks, instrumentation and related technology for its manufacturing plants. This was the prime reason a certain plant manager, Reba Derchey, working at Acme's smallest plant in the aorta of America's heartland, had little choice but to hire Jacqueline Hyde, a computer geek's geek.

In the short time she's been with Acme, Hyde implemented this brave new digital world at the local level and kept the network functioning afterward. She's proven herself to be the technical genius she claimed to be during her interviews. She not only knows how it's supposed to work, she's a troubleshooter extraordinaire who easily implements work-arounds to make nearly any techno-problem vanish as rapidly as it appears.

As is common in too many workplaces, idle chit-chat among Acme employees tends to stress the negative. One sure-fire Acme conversation starter is to complain about something that's perceived as wrong or unfair. Considering the circumstances, though, it's probably justified when Billie Aiken, another engineer, spouts off that "the sales department is so good at what they do, headquarters had to fire everyone else here who was moving at a pace slower than a blur."

What's rare, however, is the rank and file displaying that negativity in front of management. That fact highlights the oddity of Billie and another of Hyde's co-workers, Anne Noyd, cornering Derchey in her office to discuss Jacqueline's behavior.

"Yes, I understand that your jobs are a bit stressful lately," said Derchey. "But remember, I'm not laying in a bed of roses myself."

"You're missing the point, boss," said Billie. "Jackie just bursts into tears for no reason. Sure, work is stressful. If it was fun, we wouldn't call it work. Her crying freaks out everyone who's gotta work with her."

"It's more than the crying, Billie," added Anne. "I've seen her tears change to yelling, cussing, throwing things, stomping around and slamming doors. It's so juvenile. Nobody knows what sets her off. It's like walking on eggs. I mean, this could turn into a physical attack. And she never apologizes, even when she really hurts somebody's feelings."

"The worst part," added Billie, "is that Hyde acts like she's some kind of manager when she's not. You can make allowances for a manager. Those folks can rant and rave all they want. They're in charge. It's a prerogative of being a boss. But Hyde's no boss."

"Jackie missed some deadlines recently, which caused problems for some of us," said Anne. "It's not only me, Reba, but the rest of the crew that's afraid of her unpredictability. It can't be chemical dependency. The random testing eliminates that."

"We've all seen her do this stuff during the last few months," said Billie. "Something's wrong with her and we think you should talk to Jackie. It's embarrassing for everyone involved. It hardly seems professional if we've got to comfort her before we can get any work done. And she takes forever to regain her self-control."

"It's difficult," said Anne. "Being careful about business decisions makes sense. Having to be careful when you can't predict her emotional response doesn't. Then, we keep having to postpone and reschedule meetings for some other time when she's calmer and able to function better."

"Okay, okay," said Derchey.

"I promise you I'll speak with Jackie about this before tomorrow afternoon."

Is this a situation that Acme must endure? How would you recommend Reba Derchey proceed when she meets with Jacqueline Hyde?

An academician's response:

Jackie needs help, and needs it quickly. Her behavior is clearly abnormal and she may be a danger to herself or to others.

I suspect that Jackie's behavior pattern is fairly long-standing and if we checked back, we'd see similar behavior. The stress may have heightened the symptoms, but I'd be reluctant to put the blame on the recent stress for causing them.

Reba needs to do more than "talk" to Jackie. She needs to get her some help. But first, I think Reba should make a quick check with some of Jackie's coworkers to confirm what's been happening and how often.

The Human Resources person will be the person to work with Jackie (in a confidential manner) but will need to do some homework. For example, I'd check Jackie's job application material and references to see if there's any indication, if as I suspect, this has happened before. Then check the legal or policy options that determine whether Acme can suspend or terminate Jackie. It would include checking to determine if the Americans With Disabilities Act is relevant. It would include determining if Jackie be put on medical leave.

The second general question to explore is the availability of treatment options for her. For example, does Acme have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) either in-house or via outside contract? If not, is there an agency in the community who works with such cases? What treatment options, if any, does the company insurance plan cover? This information can be gathered in a day or two.

Then Reba should conduct an initial interview with Jackie, with the HR person attending. The actual interview should start with Reba saying that she is concerned about Jackie's health and the purpose of the interview is to find out how Acme might help her. Then describe some of the behavior (including time of occurrence) that Reba has documented. How this plays out next depends on Jackie's response. If she admits to the problems and expresses a desire for treatment, the next step is to find her some. On the other hand, if she denies it (and accuses her coworkers of plotting against her), some legal avenue is necessary. In any case, some action needs to be taken quickly and Jackie can't be allowed to continue as she has been.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682

A corporate consultant's response:

Equally important as the "what" one produces on the job is the "how" one produces it. No matter how stellar the outcomes an employee generates, if the way in which achievement occurs is destructive or out of alignment with corporate values, adjustments will be required.

Derchey should craft language that sets out her expectations regarding the way Jacqueline gets her work done. For example: "On an on-going basis, ensure zero instances of throwing things, yelling, cursing or slamming doors while on Acme property." Derchey can demonstrate a willingness to help Jacqueline by referring her to Acme's employee assistance plan, by giving her a bibliography of relevant reading materials, such as "Emotional Intelligence," and by offering to serve as a "safe place to vent." If Jacqueline denies she exhibits such behavior, 360-degree feedback assessments can be useful, as can third-party interventionists who can mediate between Jacqueline and her affected workplace associates.

Critical here is that Derchey also clarify (and be prepared to implement) the progressive discipline process at Acme, so Jacqueline understands the consequences of each successive infraction.

If such situations are allowed to persist with impunity, employees perceived corporate leadership to be (and in fact is) as much a part of the problem as the abusive employee. As a result, the corporate leadership ceases to have credibility with employees, causing an array of additional challenges.

An organizational willingness to be held hostage by the competencies of an employee is cowardice.

And for those who think they're "saving" their companies by standing in the breach and taking the heat for some executive who has decided to tolerate such behaviors, let's not forget that martyrdom is always posthumous.

Francie Dalton, Dalton Alliances, Inc.,
(410) 715-0484

An attorney's response:

Reba must walk a tight rope. On one hand, she faces the risk of a claim of disability discrimination, but on the other hand, she must correct a problem with a disruptive and unproductive employee who could create other legal problems for Acme if she becomes violent.

Reba's first step should be an oral counseling session with Jackie to address her unprofessional behavior. She should deal with this just like any other performance problem and add appropriate documentation to Jackie's personnel file.

However, if Acme has an employee assistance program, commonly called an EAP, Reba should suggest to Jackie that she should contact the EAP coordinator. Normally, an EAP coordinator speaks with the employee to determine the nature of the problem and then makes a confidential referral to an appropriate professional who can render treatment or counseling.

Reba should not attempt to diagnose the problem herself nor is it her place to make inquiries about Jackie's personal circumstances. Actually, Acme is better off, legally, if it does not know what causes Jackie's outbursts and anger. If Jackie's conduct is caused by a mental condition, she could be protected as a "disabled person" under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Once Acme knows that Jackie has a particular mental or physical condition, it can be accused of taking action against Jackie because of this condition, which Jackie will no doubt claim is a disability.

What if Jackie's conduct does not improve after oral counseling? Again, Reba should deal with this like any other performance problem, using progressive discipline and, ultimately, discharge, if Jackie can't correct the problem.

Acme faces one other risk if it doesn't resolve Jackie's behavior. That risk is that she may become violent and injure a coworker or customer. Employers have been sued for "negligent supervision" and "negligent retention" when they are aware that an employee has violent tendencies and then do nothing to resolve the problem. Under these circumstances, Acme has been put on notice that Jackie may be violent, and it has an obligation to do something.

Situations like Jackie's emotionalism can be among the most difficult and will require both skill and patience on Reba's part.

Julie Badel, Partner, Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.

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