Take away the Hollywood, glamour, and awards, and say you have two employees--we'll call them Will and Chris. Chris makes a tasteless joke about Will's wife, and Will slaps Chris. What do you do?

I asked HR managers in my Evil HR Lady group what they would do. Let their answers help guide you through similar sticky situations in your business should something like this arise. 

Take immediate action.

If Will hadn't stopped at one slap or Chris had fought back, you would absolutely need to get security, or the police involved to separate the pair. A suspension of both while you investigate would be a good immediate action.

Should you allow Will to remain at the event, or should he be escorted out? While the conflict between Will and Chris did not escalate, you need to immediately separate. Will should, at a minimum, have been removed from the room.

But, permanent action, like termination or a formal write-up? HR managers remind you to investigate.

Investigate before taking serious action.

You may ask, what is there to investigate? The camera caught it live. We all saw it!

Sometimes managers and HR fall into this trap--the last act is all that we see, and we make a judgment based on that and that alone. But there is always more to the story.

Some questions you would want to find the answers to:

  • Do Will and Chris have a history of conflict?
  • Chris's joke was part of a presentation. Did he tell that joke in rehearsal? Were the producers OK with it? Or did he go off script?
  • Has there been previous violence between the two parties?
  • Did Chris know about Jada's medical condition, or was he joking about her hairstyle?

Even if you feel that, regardless of history, you should fire Will for violence (and that's legitimate and the majority of Evil HR Lady members supported terminating Will), how you handle Chris will depend on the results of this termination.

For example, if management cleared his joke, you'd need to discipline them the same as you would him. It's either all who authorized it or no one.

Was this a work event?

This makes a difference, and opinions differ on whether this would be considered a work obligation. One person wrote, "I would consider the award show a work event as Will is present for a movie he was paid to do." 

She makes an excellent point--going to award shows is part of being a movie star. It may be in Will's contract. Chris was clearly at work--telling jokes, which is what they pay him for. But not everyone felt that way. Another HR person suggested that this wasn't a work event but similar to a professional conference. The difference? An experienced HR manager and one of the group moderators wrote, "I had to fire Will because he [slapped] him at a work event. But if he [slapped] him on his own time ... That's none of my business."

If you have two employees involved in conflict with each other, where it takes place does make a difference.

Keep rules in mind.

Are your employees unionized? This can make a difference in how you react. You will need to follow your union contract and terminate or discipline per the contract. As one HR person wrote, this can be difficult. She said, "It takes too long to fire anyone in my organization, so things will just be awkward for the next two to four years."

She's not alone. Union or not, are your processes so convoluted that you cannot act quickly? Are there too many layers of appeal? If so, keep in mind that while you may be doing this to be "nice" to one employee, it can be challenging for others.

Overall verdict

Fire Will and counsel Chris: This is what most people agreed. Violence is never acceptable in the workplace, even if Chris provoked Will. But Chris doesn't get off free. His joke was cruel and inappropriate. Yes, it was his job to make fun of the stars, but making fun of someone's disability is not funny.

Hopefully, you won't have to deal with this type of behavior in your workplace, but there's a good chance such conflicts will come up. Be prepared.