In the latest article for our Tricky Issues series, we consider how employers should deal with personality clashes in the workplace, why they need to be dealt with quickly and the legal position when employers consider dismissal.
Personality clashes – what is a personality clash?
A personality clash in the workplace occurs where employees find themselves at odds with one another due to incompatible personalities, differing cultural backgrounds, conflicting approaches to work or simply a contrasting outlook on life. Quite often there isn’t a specific issue or problem that causes the conflict which is why personality clashes are notoriously challenging for businesses to deal with.
Personality clashes between colleagues are commonplace with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) estimating that 38% of employees will encounter problems with a colleague at some point during their career. Such situations can often lead to impasses with colleagues point-blank refusing to work with one another, requesting colleagues to be displaced and work elsewhere on the premises or creating a ‘they go, or I go’ situation.
More challenging personality clashes can involve members of senior management. Sometimes a certain management style, attitude or approach to leadership is at fundamental odds with the culture or ethos of the business. This can lead to widespread problems within teams or departments as was the case in Perkins -v- St George’s NHS Trust. Perkins was employed as finance director with far reaching responsibilities including managing a team of people and improving the reputation of the Trust within the business community. Following complaints about Perkins leadership from members of his own team, the Trust deemed his bullish behaviour and aggressive management style to be jeopardising the Trust and having a direct impact on his ability to lead his team, build good rapport with stakeholders and develop positive business relationships with external parties. After a disciplinary investigation and hearing, Perkins was dismissed.
Why do personality clashes matter?
The impact that personality clashes can have on an organisation can be significant. The combination of direct and indirect consequences on the business, employees and colleagues can be far reaching and can take organisations years to eradicate or reverse. A failure to deal with a personality clash or issue within an organisation can lead to:
- the development of a bitter and hostile working environment with the potential for this to lead to complaints of discrimination;
- the manifestation of a poor culture within the workplace;
- a decline in productivity as morale amongst the workforce dips;
- increased ‘team gossip’ or stonewalling individuals;
- a decline in employees mental health and an increase in their anxiety and stress levels;
- increased absenteeism and/or sick days as employees avoid the workplace;
- an inability to attract and retain the best talent;
- a divided workforce as employees ‘pick sides’, particularly where two senior leaders clash;
- a damaged business reputation within the sector that the organisation operates in; and
- an inability to attract clients and customers.
Dismissal under SOSR
One of the most challenging aspects of dealing with a personality issue is that the line can often be blurred resulting in the matter being dealt with as a conduct or capability issue instead which could render a dismissal unfair. Instead employers should seek to dismiss by reason of ‘some other substantial reason’ (SOSR) and focus on the impact the personality is having on the organisation rather than pinning the issue down as being solely the employee’s personality itself.
It is important to note that for a dismissal by reason of SOSR to be deemed fair, the impact of the personality conflict needs to be so severe that it causes a substantial disruption to the business. In the Perkins case, the Court of Appeal affirmed that a personality issue alone cannot be a reason for dismissal but held that the Trust were well within their rights to dismiss him because his personality had manifested itself through his behaviour with other employees, clients and customers to such an extent that it was considered to be the main reason for the breakdown of the working relationship. In Gallacher -v- Abellio Scotrail Ltd the EAT made a rare judgement in holding that despite not even following a fair process, the dismissal of Gallacher by reason of SOSR was fair because she was a senior manager whose continued good relationship with her manager was critical to the success of the business. Once the relationship had turned sour and had broken down the consequences were substantial and severe enough that trying to repair it would prove futile.
It is also important that employers take reasonable steps to try and resolve the clash, exploring all reasonable alternatives to dismissal. This includes considering the redeployment of staff so that clashing colleagues do not work in the same area or work different patterns to one another, changing reporting lines, and undertaking mediation between colleagues.
Top tips for employers
Whilst personality clashes can take various forms and should be dealt with on a case by case basis, there are several things that employers should consider when dealing with conflict of this kind:
Act quickly – don’t let personality clashes linger or go unchallenged as this will cause gossip to spread and introduce wider workplace problems. Ensuring that clashes are dealt with promptly reduces the risk of the situation escalating or erupting into stonewalling, bullying or physical altercations.
Mediation – offer the conflicting parties the opportunity to air their views in a constructive way. Mediation will allow all parties to better understand the specific issues and identify points of agreement and disagreement. Mediation also gives employers a chance to determine if this is a simple personality clash or part of a wider conduct issue.
Working arrangements – work with employees by suggesting alternative working arrangements. This can be a good way of ensuring that two conflicting employees avoid one another whilst minimising business disruption. With their agreement, something as simple as amending start and end times or giving employees an alternative space to work within can help to reduce conflict.
Reporting lines – where the conflict is between a supervisor and a member of their team consider whether a change in supervisor would alleviate the issue.
Confidentiality – ensure that any personality issues are dealt with confidentiality between the parties involved.