My staff is freaking out after an incident.

Dear Ryan,

I am a manager at a food pantry.

One of our clients (who has an intellectual disability) had an outburst. She physically rushed at one of our staff. Fortunately, she stopped short of physically assaulting the staff member. Barely.

The staff member involved is very shaken. The rest of the staff is freaking out.

What can leadership do now?



I’m sorry this happened to your staff.

I have a few tips for how to handle an incident (learned the hard way):

1. Offer free counseling to the staff member affected. After some incidents, people need professional assistance.

2. Leadership needs to prove that they care about the frontline staff. Serving the most vulnerable is challenging. Take the time to check in with your staff regularly (at least once per day) and listen.

3. Leadership needs to prove that they are willing to take the same risks as the frontline staff. Our shelter had a massive tuberculosis outbreak 15 years ago and the staff was (correctly!) freaking out. The staff accused me of not doing enough because I was “safe in my office.” I immediately drove home, packed a bag and returned to the shelter. For a week, I slept on a mat on the floor with 100 coughing shelter residents in the poorly ventilated barracks. I showered in the residents’ shower room and ate in the crowded cafeteria. Staff were still worried about catching Tuberculosis, but they knew that I was willing to take the same risk as them. In your case, you need to work some shifts in the food pantry and de-escalate some angry clients.

4. It is always helpful to do an “After Action Review” after an incident. It is beyond the scope of this email, but if you Google it, you will find some helpful tips.

5. Be very careful of the paranoia that can set in. Oftentimes, staff want to take immediate and drastic measures after an incident. People may want to enact sweeping safety measures that have nothing to do with the incident itself (like installing metal detectors in a situation like yours where there were no weapons). Other staff will want to target specific populations (those struggling with mental illness, homelessness, developmental disabilities, etc.). Changes made immediately after an incident are rarely wise. After a month or two has passed, staff will have more perspective to make good decisions. Establish a small team to investigate and propose changes. The time it takes them to research will give staff an opportunity to calm down a bit. You may need to make changes, but do it the right way.

Good luck!



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