Corporate Security and Human Resources: A Difficult Partnership- Jeff Sweetin

It was 9am and my desk phone rang. On the other end was an HR business partner who asked: “Jeff, can you have one of your security folks come over to HR? We are terminating an employee in a few minutes and we are concerned that they may freak out.” “Who is the employee?” I asked. And the unbelievable reply: “I can’t tell you.”

The termination had been planned by HR for weeks and based on the behavior of the employee, HR’s concern was warranted. My employer thought enough of security to have paid, experienced security professionals onsite to handle any security concerns that might arise. But for some reason, HR chose not to partner with Corporate Security in advance and refused to provide basic details, even when they feared for their safety.

An isolated incident, right? Maybe not. In September I presented at ASIS 2017 on “Conducting a Safe Employee Termination” before about 200 security professionals. As I shared this story, I saw heads nodding and decided to conduct an unsophisticated survey. I asked anyone who had experienced a similar incident where their HR partners had failed to advise them of a planned, potentially violent encounter, to raise their hands. Almost everyone in attendance did.

Why would seasoned HR professionals choose not to partner with Corporate Security on encounters that may jeopardize employee safety? I posed that question to both HR and security practitioners, and identified a few possible explanations:

Haste

One HR manager I spoke to recalled an employee who, after receiving an email not intended for him, uncovered the plan to terminate him the following day. Late in the evening, he appeared at the HR manager’s office and confronted her. She admitted that his suspicion was correct and he demanded that his termination occur immediately. The HR manager conducted the termination by herself, late in the evening, without anyone else knowing. She told me she went ahead with it because she “wanted to get it over with. Obtaining approval to terminate an employee can, and should be a long, arduous process. And once the approval is received, many HR reps admit they want to do it as quickly as possible, even if that prevents them from conducting it safely. Many HR partners see security’s involvement as an unnecessary delay and choose not to involve security.

Sympathy

The nature of HR professionals’ job is to focus on the needs of people. In my experience, they usually care deeply about the employees they serve. Once termination is planned, their desire to ensure the employee is treated with kindness and dignity, and their belief that security will be overbearing, may cause them to go it alone.

Secrecy

Secrecy. Personnel information should be secured from unauthorized access. But many HR departments operate in cultures of extreme secrecy where little or no information related to layoffs, terminations, etc., is shared with anyone outside of HR, even when there is a demonstrated need to know. Many security professionals I spoke to identified this as a primary inhibitor to cooperation. “They don’t want us to know what we need to know to keep them safe.”

Credibility

Sometimes security providers are their own worst enemies. In order to ensure their corporate relevance or enhance their department’s resources, some self-serving security professionals exaggerate minor threats and severely erode their credibility. Once credibility is lost, HR loses confidence that security will react appropriately to the planned termination and conducts the operation without them.

Denial

If we don’t address workplace violence, it won’t happen.” Many corporate cultures operate in constant denial of what could happen, what is happening elsewhere, and what needs to be done to prevent employee harm. In these companies, efforts are taken to ensure security doesn’t frighten employees by addressing the issues of violence. Once after attempting to begin a conversation on potential workplace violence, a company manager made the statement: “we don’t want you turning our company into an armed camp.”

The Hurricane Factor

Every Summer, as hurricanes bare down on the United States, a select few homeowners are told to “evacuate or perish.” Some refuse to leave, instead opting to ride out the storm at home. Those who survive, will likely never evacuate again. Likewise, HR personnel who have conducted dozens of terminations, some with high violence potential, where none occurred, are likely to “ride out” future events without security assistance, which they see as unnecessary.

Ignorance

To HR partners who have never worked with corporate security professionals, “security” may bring to mind bouncers bent on dragging an employee to the front door. Even though HR processed your recruitment and hiring, they may be completely unaware of the value and professionalism you bring to their work. HR may also believe they have all relevant information, even though they often lack details typically provided by corporate security such as an employee’s previous contacts with law enforcement or threatening social media statements.

A few security directors reported close, functional, collaborative relationships with their HR counterparts. Most explained that this was not always the case and that the relationship had improved dramatically because of security’s efforts, which involved a gradual process of establishing credibility, educating HR on security’s capabilities and value, and building trust.

Many of us grew up in a world lacking modern safety equipment. We didn’t wear bike, skateboard, motorcycle or ski helmets, we never wore seatbelts, and somehow, we survived. We didn’t worry about getting hurt because we didn’t know what we didn’t know. But as we learned more about what could happen, we changed our behavior and incorporated reasonable safety equipment into our activities. Eventually, we no longer felt comfortable without helmets and seatbelts. It was a gradual process that yielded significant behavior changes. It’s the same for our HR partners.

In June 2018, I will again present on this topic, this time at SHRM’s Annual Conference. I look forward to gaining additional perspectives from HR professionals and I look forward to continuing the discussion.

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