Managing A Different Fever: The Volatile Person

March 16, 2020

by Dr. Larry Barton

Employers are reporting an uptick in veiled and indirect threats from customers, employees, contractors and others as various employers reduce hours, curtail operations or require work from home. While most are gracious and understanding, every employer has a responsibility – in fact, a legal requirement in many jurisdictions – to prepare your people for managing the person whose threats can become personal to a customer service representative, retail supervisor or volunteer.

What can you do?

Advise, not alarm, those who have public-facing duties the essentials of verbal de-escalation.

Saying “I understand and will do my best” is better than: “I agree” which can fuel an angry person. Reduce the use of the word “you” which personalizes a person who may have fatigue, emotional disorders or truly be- well, just a punk. Remind employees that if they are ever in harm’s way because a person mentions retaliation that they can and should contact law enforcement. Empower your people to use your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which is free benefit available 24/7 and that has never been more important to assist with stress than right now. That’s especially true when your talent is grappling with new work norms and taking care of parents, children and themselves.

Finally, encourage your employees to be creative in the midst of verbal and in-person hostility.

Encourage them to ask a co-worker for a dual presence as a person becomes agitated. “Carlos, can you assist us over here?” is a good example of leveraging talent and signaling that a transaction or absence of one is going poorly. People who are escalating in their anger and disruptive to any work setting are often comforted if you say: “Please give me a cell number and someone will call back within two hours.” Then ensure it happens as this promise is your work, and your goodwill. We’re in a new zone of hostility in virtually every work and social environment; patience is being tested as never before, often because even the finest of people are feeling economic, work and family pressures.

I’ve advised many businesses that are open platforms to consumers to add signage that says:

“We’re doing our best. Thanks for your patience. We have families, too.”

It sounds trite but an astounding number of people have commented back to corporate leaders: “Hey, that’s awesome. I’m going to post that at my registers/counters/doors.” Civility matters. But if anyone abuses your people emotionally or otherwise, you must do more than give them emotional comfort: show that you are truly watching their back by getting ahead of this storm of emotions.


Dr. Larry Barton is an FBI Instructor with a crisis management practice. He is the author of Crisis Leadership Now, as well as his upcoming book, The Violent Person @ Work, which will be released April 23 by Anthem Press of London. He can be reached by visiting his website at