Managing a clash of personalities... Is dismissal an option?

Managing a clash of personalities... Is dismissal an option?

Published:

Author: Helen Burgess and Michael Briggs

Applies to: England, Wales and Scotland

When personalities collide at work they can create considerable difficulty, including disruption to productivity and significant stress and anxiety for all employees.

Such cases may therefore cause an employer to consider the dismissal of one, both or all parties. But how can an employer do so, and do so fairly?

Background

Personality clashes among colleagues cause considerable difficulty for those concerned and all those who are either affected or have to deal with the fall-out. Such difficulties can include disruption to productivity, reduced motivation, increased absence and reduced social interaction. In light of this, seeking to resolve matters early on is key, and there should be a general emphasis on managing and dealing with personality clashes effectively in order to maintain positive workplace relations and wellbeing. Spotting the signs of conflict early and seeking to understand the cause of the clash and address issues as early as possible will assist. If however efforts to resolve the issue comes to no avail, dismissal may need to be considered for one or more of those involved.

Dismissal

Under the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA), there are five potentially fair reasons for dismissal: conduct; capability; redundancy; breach of a statutory restriction; and the 'catch all' of some other substantial reason (SOSR). Whether a dismissal for a potentially fair reason will be fair or unfair will of course depend upon all of the circumstances of the case and whether the employer acted reasonably in treating the reason as a sufficient reason for dismissal. This will include, amongst other things, whether the decision to dismiss was within the 'range of reasonable responses' open to it. Potential dismissals of employees who clash at work is usually a potential SOSR dismissal (unless matters have escalated and employees have come to blows, in which case, conduct may be the potential reason).

What constitutes 'some other substantial reason'?

There is no statutory definition of SOSR and case law has simply confirmed that the reason for the dismissal must be 'substantial' and that the SOSR should justify the dismissal of the employee holding the job that they held; rather than result in any other lesser alternative, such as the employee keeping their job, redeployment to another area of the business, changing work patterns and the possibility of mediation.

SOSR dismissals

In the context of a SOSR dismissal, for which a personality clash would likely fall, the employer must firstly show that the SOSR is the sole or principal reason for the dismissal. This is a fairly simple test given that the employer need only establish a SOSR reason for the dismissal (such as a personality clash between employees), which could justify the dismissal of an employee holding the job in question. The more difficult task for the employer is to establish that its decision to dismiss for SOSR was reasonable in all the circumstances.

When dismissing for personality clashes, employers must be careful to ensure that the conflict is such that it has been and is causing substantial disruption to its business or is otherwise seriously affecting its business. The 'clash' must not be frivolous or insignificant. A substantial disruption or serious effect will be easier to prove in a small business with a limited number of employees and where there are no other possible alternatives to dismissal. This unfortunately is not such good news to employers who employ hundreds or thousands of employees!

Further, employers must be careful to ensure that it is not an employee's personality itself that is the reason for dismissal but rather the manifestation of their personality that is the issue. However, the actions resulting from a personality clash, for example, a breakdown in communications or an inability to work with other members of a team, will suffice.

Employers should also be careful when considering personality clashes which revolve around conflicting views, especially where those views amount to a protected characteristic. Whilst there was no actual personality clash involved in the case of Ladele v London Borough of Islington (which involved a registrar who was opposed to and ultimately refused to conduct civil ceremonies involving same sex couples on account of her Christian beliefs), it is clear that competing views over sexual orientation and religion (and other protected characteristics) could result in personality clashes at work for which careful and considered management would be required so as to avoid potential claims for discrimination as well as unfair dismissal.

What steps should employers take to deal with personality clashes generally and/or when moving to dismiss for SOSR?

Employers are expected to take reasonable steps to rectify the issues and resolve any conflicts, whether this is by finding alternative employment for one or more of the employees concerned, changing timetables so that conflict is less likely to be an issue, initiating talks with the employees with reconciliation in mind, or any other reasonable solutions that can be put in place, before moving to dismissal.

If the situation cannot be resolved and dismissal is considered, employers should follow a fair dismissal procedure. Although a dismissal for SOSR based upon a personality clash would not invoke an employer's disciplinary procedure (as it is not a dismissal for conduct) employers would be well advised to follow a similar, albeit adapted, procedure. Tribunals have also warned employers not to use SOSR as a way of avoiding following the disciplinary procedure. As such a process similar to that set out in the ACAS Code is suggested best practice when dismissing for personality clashes or SOSR generally. This way, not only would a Tribunal see that the dismissal followed a fair procedure, but hopefully the ex-employee(s) concerned is also more likely to accept that the process adopted was a fair one and not pursue a claim.

Best practice therefore entails:

  • spotting the signs of conflict / personality clashes early
  • seeking to understand the underlying cause and try to address and resolve the issues
  • where resolution is not possible, investigating matters thoroughly and otherwise following a fair dismissal process, allowing employees to understand the fact that dismissal is being considered and the reasons for this. A right of appeal should also be provided, especially where employees have 2 or more continuous years' service
  • terminating with notice to avoid any claims of breach of contract

Disclaimer

This document is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.

About the author

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Helen Burgess

Partner

03700 86 5028

Helen heads the employment team in Nottingham and is well-versed in the specialist area of employment / labour law, advising HR professionals, in-house counsel, directors and managers on human resource and employment law issues. She has particular experience of TUPE advice, tribunals, business immigration, collective and union issues, whistle blowing, settlement agreements & terminations and executive appointment & exits.

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