Well, That Escalated Quickly

I am still agog at the Antonio Brown situation several days later. For those of you who don’t follow sports or the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ wide receiver (and generational talent) can be combustible. 

Antonio Brown

Since building a Hall of Fame-worthy career over many years in Pittsburgh, he’s unfortunately become fodder more for tabloid-esque behavior than his play on the field. He had a noisy exit from the Steelers, an even louder and messier stint with the then-Oakland Raiders, lengthy suspensions, and a somewhat productive cup of coffee with the New England Patriots. Finally, he joined Tampa Bay last season and rediscovered some of his old self, playing well for a Super Bowl champ. Things seemed to have leveled out for him… until last Sunday. 

In the third quarter of a surprisingly close game between the Buccaneers and the New York Jets, something happened. The team and Brown have different stories, but what we do know is that Brown was clearly agitated on the sideline. Teammates attempted to calm him, but it didn’t work.

Brown wriggled out of his jersey and shoulder pads, which he flung toward the bench. He peeled off his undershirt and gloves, which he threw into the stands. He ran bare-chested away from the sideline toward the end zone, crossed into the end zone during the game, and began jumping and urging on the crowd. Eventually, he found his way to the tunnel and the locker rooms. Bystanders outside the stadium later snapped photos of him standing on the sidewalk with his luggage, seemingly hailing a ride on his phone.

As fellow HR nightmare Ron Burgundy would say, “Well, that escalated quickly.”

One unpleasant aspect of managing employees is that from time to time, you have to handle people who, for reasons good or ill, don’t have as tight a grip on their horses as they should at that moment. Maybe you have just discharged someone, and it set him or her off. Maybe two employees have argued or fought, and their blood is still running hot. Maybe someone is dealing with a physical or mental condition that suddenly alters his or her behavior. How do you respond?

In my estimation, the first consideration is always safety—the person’s safety, yours, and the others in the building. For all that can be said of Brown’s antics on the sidelines, he thankfully was not violent in a way that threatened others or himself. We all have seen, though, that is not always the case at work. If you feel a situation risks harm, don’t hesitate to seek law enforcement assistance. 

In fact, I recommend cultivating contacts with local law enforcement for these types of situations. Also, don’t just get the angry employee off the premises and set him or her adrift. If you don’t think the person is in a good frame of mind to safely drive or otherwise get home, pay for him or her to take a cab. 

Next, I urge HR professionals to seek out some training so they are familiar with de-escalation techniques. When people work themselves up to the point where they aren’t in a logical frame of mind, or when they are dealing with a medical condition that’s taken them to the same place, the normal everyday ways we tell people to calm down may not work. 

The person who has lost control is more than just angry—fear is a primary driver in those situations, and being out of control is scary (although it’s not going to appear that way from the outside). If you try to put your hands on the person or even approach him or her, you may be shocked at the reaction. De-escalation training will help you recognize these behaviors and get the person to a point where he or she listens to enough reason to take a situation from volcanic to a low boil and, ultimately, a simmer. 

Finally, it’s not always appropriate to make a snap decision on his or her ultimate employment. Take a little time and consider things first. These situations have a lot of moving parts. Consulting your employment counsel will help you work through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and other state and federal laws before you make a final call.

Things can indeed escalate quickly. Your job is to bring the person in for a landing as smoothly as possible. 

Think of it this way: No one remembers the flights with smooth, easy landings. We do remember the turbulent flights with hair-raising approaches and bumpy landings. Get yourself prepared now so your turbulent situations come in for a safe landing, with folks no worse for the wear than absolutely necessary.

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