This month it was reported that Peterhead Lifeboat had been axed by the RNLI due to personal rivalries that they had failed to resolve. The charity said it had exhausted all attempts to provide a solution, including mediation, and the only option was to close the station as safety was at risk.
Although the crew was made up of volunteers and not employees, this does serve as a vital lesson to all employers in how difficult it can be to traverse the choppy waters of employee relationships. This becomes increasingly complicated when you add in fair dismissal considerations.
Personality clashes or irreconcilable differences between colleagues can be grounds for an employer to dismiss for some other substantial reason (SOSR) but case law has shown that the conflict would need to be causing substantial disruption to the business. It has also been established that an employer would be expected to avoid dismissal where possible by looking at alternatives such as redeploying one of the workers, changing the colleagues’ work patterns and attempting to mediate between the individuals.
Organisations may also need to consider possible discrimination issues before dismissing for personality clashes where these are born out of conflicting political views, for example, as opposed to the actions of the parties. This is also the case where personality clashes may be caused by a colleague having underlying conditions, for instance autism, which, according to the National Autistic Society can result in difficulties with social communication and interaction. Given that employees with autism may be protected as disabled under the Equality Act 2010, employers would be wise to remain alive to these considerations before writing off employees with tricky work relationships.
The Court of Appeal handed down useful guidance for employers in the case of Perkin v St Georges Healthcare NHS Trust. It was found in this case that dismissal on the account of a difficult personality could not in itself constitute a SOSR dismissal. An employer would need to go further and consider how personality issues affected working relationships or communication with clients. This suggests that the key is to focus on the breakdown in relationships that may result from a difficult personality rather than the culpability of the employee.
One way to overcome workplace conflicts is to consider mediation and conflict resolution. Here at Law At Work we have certified mediators who can work with individuals or groups of individuals to resolve such issues whilst hoping to avoid the more formal routes of disciplinary and grievance. If personality clashes are affecting your team, contact your designated Advisor today.