United States: Six Proven Tactics To Help Avoid The "Ticking Time Bomb" Employee

Last Updated: November 7 2015
Article by A. Kevin Troutman

Each new headline in the news describing the latest workplace violence tragedy reminds managers and human resources executives of their tremendous responsibilities in attempting to help prevent such senseless acts.

These reports also underscore a chilling new vision of the workplace, founded on the premise that some degree of violence may be random, and therefore unpredictable. But even though such acts can be hard to predict and no preventative step is foolproof, HR and other managers can indeed take effective steps to help safeguard their workplaces from the next "ticking time bomb" employee.

The "ticking time bomb" employee might lead to dissatisfied patients and customers, unhappy co-workers, costly litigation, workplace violence, or in some cases, all of the above. Whatever form an explosion takes, its effects can be devastating. So, as usual, prevention represents the best protection. 

Simple Steps Can Save Substantial Grief
In the vast majority of cases, employees who visit misery upon a workplace share some common characteristics. Through effective training and screening, you can identify a large percentage of high-risk applicants and legally avoid hiring them. This process obviously begins early, but it continues throughout an employee's tenure. As discussed below, six simple steps and fundamental practices can help avoid considerable pain.       

1. Don't Hire The 'Walking Lawsuit'
The first phase of this framework can best be described as: "don't hire the walking lawsuit." Troubled workers share characteristics that you can often identify. Therefore, begin the screening by insisting that every applicant complete an application form, with no exceptions.  

Even if the candidate attaches a résumé, you should insist that your company's form application be thoroughly completed. That means responding legibly to every question. You should not accept a response of "see résumé." If an applicant does not follow instructions at this phase of the process, how likely will the applicant perform at your standards after six months of employment?

After obtaining the completed application, read it...carefully. This self-evident step too often receives short shrift. After problems arise, it is surprising how often predictors of troublesome behavior were dangled in front of the employer – but ignored – on the application form. 

You should carefully evaluate the candidate's education and especially work history. Focus on dates of employment and reasons for leaving prior jobs, particularly when the explanations seem vague. Do not hesitate to ask for explanations of the oft-cited but important "gaps" in employment dates.

Explanations may be perfectly legitimate or they may reveal problems or inconsistencies. Pay attention to the applicant's body language and mannerisms when dealing with these questions. If a problem exists, this represents a perfect opportunity to identify it.

2. Screen Applicants Thoroughly
Next, do not be afraid to ask about an applicant's criminal history, if relevant to the job.  In many cases, it will be. Of course, make sure to explain that a conviction will not necessarily exclude an applicant from consideration, and perform the appropriate factual analysis as it relates to the job in question.

You should also conduct background checks to verify information that the applicant provides, ensuring you comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act where applicable. Seek explanations for discrepancies.

Consider having more than one person interview applicants and ask questions that will reveal how the applicants view their prior work experiences and employers. What did they like best about their last job and last supervisor? What did they like least, and why? Which policies of their previous employers did they disagree with? Be alert for "victim-like" responses and keep in mind that the applicants' responses are often an accurate predictor of what they are likely to say about their next employer – which could be you.

Unless there is a specific reason to take another approach, you should require candidates to submit to drug tests before finalizing your hiring decision. Make sure your drug-testing policy is up-to-date and in compliance with all applicable laws. Keep in mind that drug-abusers are more likely to seek employment at companies that do not test applicants or employees. 

3. Affirmatively Welcome And Support New Employees
When employment begins, continue a programmatic approach to supporting the success of new employees. Assign a mentor, make job expectations clear, provide feedback (both good and bad), and do not ignore signs of problems. Among adult employees, troublesome conduct rarely improves on its own.

You should also consider conducting at least for-cause drug-testing among all employees when reasonable suspicion is aroused, and assess whether random testing will help support your company's goals. You should offer an employee assistance program (EAP) to help those who test positive or who may be facing other life challenges.

Adopt a zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence, which encompasses threats and even so-called "jokes" about violence or weapons. Jokes about violence have no place in today's workplace. 

Perhaps most importantly, you should enforce your performance expectations in a constructive way. It is important to recognize that employees do not respond well to surprises, so setting expectations and consistently enforcing them goes a long way toward supporting a productive and safe workplace culture.

If clear expectations exist from the beginning of an employee's tenure with your workforce, it improves everyone's chances of success. You should also establish an anonymous hotline that employees can use to report concerns of misconduct or policy violations, if they do not feel comfortable expressing their concerns directly to HR or other leaders.   

4. Prepare To Deal With Potential Problems
Inevitably, problems will develop, so it is best to be proactive and begin planning for trouble now. You should provide training for every employee during orientation and again periodically throughout their service with you, in the form of live training sessions, computerized-based learning modules, postings on bulletin boards and the company intranet, and regularly published newsletters. 

During these sessions, remind your employees of company security policies and procedures. You might also consider conducting mock emergency or disaster drills, so that everyone knows what to do in the event of an emergency. Ensure that company leaders demonstrate that they take workplace safety seriously. 

You should confirm your employees know their role and responsibilities in maintaining a harassment and violence-free workplace, which includes following established procedures regarding confidentiality and security. You should convey and support the premise that the company will not tolerate retaliation against anyone who reports a concern of discrimination, harassment, improper conduct, or threat of violence.

Make it plain in your written policies and training sessions that the company would rather err on the side of caution, fair play, and safety than to ignore warning signs of possible problems.

5. Handle All Terminations With Dignity And Respect
When employees leave, do everything reasonably possible to ensure that they exit with dignity, even in the case of involuntary terminations for misconduct. Treat departing employees the way you would want to be treated in such a situation. Make sure you offer the employee your undivided attention during the termination meeting, and ensure that you are in a private setting where you will not be interrupted.

Think through all aspects of the termination ahead of time, including what time of day you will conduct the meeting to spare embarrassment and best protect company interests. Finally, you should conduct exit interviews where practical to gather information about the workplace, using the feedback to improve processes or address troubling situations.

6. Control Responses To Inquiries About Former Employees
Once departed, you should ensure that only authorized persons in the HR department respond to requests for employment verification and/or references about your former employees. Think through and carefully plan, within the confines of company policy, precisely what information to provide in response to the inevitable inquiries. 

During this process, keep in mind not only state laws that relate to the good faith provision of employment references, but also laws regarding defamation and negligent referral. In many cases, you may conclude that providing only dates of employment, job title, and last rate of pay (sometimes referred to as "name, rank, and serial number") may be the most prudent way to respond to reference requests. 

This is because the concept of negligent referral, for example, can mean that once a former employer provides more than this basic information, doing so may trigger a duty to provide information about any dangerous propensities about which the employer is aware. In other words, if you reveal that a former employee was terminated for a policy violation, you may have a legal duty to disclose the alleged violent conduct that was the underlying reason for the termination. 

Unfortunately, some warning signs that seem glaring in retrospect might seem subjective in the eyes of the former employer when they are responding to a reference request. Thus, HR professionals still often find themselves in a legal minefield, where the former employer's safest approach is to provide the barest of information to prospective future employers.

The foregoing reality illustrates why all other steps described above are so important. Even though reference checks and employment verifications are important tools, prospective employers cannot rely on them exclusively, as they may not reveal the full totality of information you would want to have when making a hiring decision.

It All Adds Up To A Safer Workplace
In the end, some bad apples will probably still be hired, and some will have to be terminated. But all of the tools referenced above will help you manage these situations more effectively and protect you after the termination. 

When a separation is especially difficult or emotional, you should err on the side of prevention while protecting the departing employee's dignity and confidentiality as much as possible. As always, the first priority should be workplace security. This may include employing extra security for a period of time after the separation, depending upon the facts and circumstances.   

While no set of safeguards can guarantee a workplace that is entirely free from threats posed by disgruntled employees, the foregoing practices can reduce risks considerably and ensure that the workplace is well-prepared if and when an incident occurs.      

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

A. Kevin Troutman
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.