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We are often asked for advice about dealing with employees who have personality clashes with colleagues, are hard to manage or are simply downright disruptive. We all know that managing staff is difficult at the best of times so we thought you would be interested to get our take on what to do when you have to sort out the rotten apple in the barrel.

It is well established, from a 2005 Court of Appeal judgment, that an employer dismissing an employee for having a “difficult personality” may do so fairly, if this constitutes ‘Some other Substantial Reason’ (SOSR) and here's the catch - which justifies dismissal. Don’t get too excited as, subsequent Employment Appeal Tribunal decisions have come to conflicting decisions. In turn this creates difficulty for employers when considering whether the characteristics of a ‘difficult personality’ justifies dismissal for SOSR or whether it is a conduct matter (either misconduct or gross misconduct) that should be addressed through the disciplinary procedure.

What is clear, is that a dismissal due to being ‘difficult’ should always be a last resort.  To justify the dismissal of a difficult employee, the employer will need to demonstrate that, despite attempts to manage the employee or the situation, the position remained untenable with dismissal being the only option.

Managing difficult employees
Whether you’re an employer, director, manager, supervisor or team leader, at some point in your career you will, if you have not already, encounter the “difficult” employee.  You know the ones: those with personalities ranging from being overbearing, loud and/or a bit of a ‘know it all’ through to being negative, uncooperative, or just too quiet and timid. These characteristics impact not only on their ability to do their job, but affect the team dynamics within an organisation or department.   

Whilst being in a management role can be fulfilling and rewarding, it also carries the responsibility of having to manage the difficult employee and that is not always easy!  Get it wrong and your workplace can become an unenjoyable place to be or worse, you handle it wrong and end up facing costly legal claims.

Why do you need to manage difficult employees?
Different personalities that clash within a team can result in a breakdown in working relationships and this is a sufficient reason for you to act.  However, the manifestation of different personalities and characteristics can also be interpreted as harassment or bullying.

Harassment – the official position
In a situation of harassment, what matters is the alleged victim’s perception about how they have been treated and whether the ‘unwanted conduct’ (related to a relevant protected characteristic e.g. their gender, race/nationality, religion, beliefs, sexual orientation, trans-gender, age, disability etc.), ‘has the purpose or effect of violating the individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual’.

If the behaviour is not related to a relevant protected characteristic, it might be considered bullying.  Whilst bullying is not defined in law, ACAS defines it as ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour; or an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient'.

The consequences of any of the above could be costly legal action involving claims of discrimination and/or constructive unfair dismissal – so this cannot be ignored.

What should you do?
It is always better to try and resolve such issues internally rather than have to defend a claim before the Employment Tribunal. As a start point, employers should have well communicated grievance procedures that enable anyone who perceives themselves to having being the subject of harassment or bullying to raise a grievance. These give the employer the opportunity to investigate the complaint and where applicable, take appropriate action against the bully/harasser. If the outcome is that the grievance is found to be malicious then of course, other action would need to be considered such as formal discipline against the "grieving" employee.

Trying in the first instance to resolve problems informally, by seeking to improve relations, can often bring better results than ‘formal procedures’ and recognising this can be a challenge for employers and managers.  Resorting to a formal process too soon can quickly entrench the ‘conflict’ and can limit solutions. The option for them to continuing working together could be lost, not to mention the avoidance of a drain on management time.

It can be easier to deal with these problems if you know the personality of the individuals you are dealing with and there are some techniques to help you manage your workplace antagonist – and maybe even convert them to business allies.

CONTROL YOUR ACTIONS - You should always keep calm, logical and confident. Control your own response no matter what the provocation.

BE STRATEGIC - Think long term. Identify your professional objective. What do you want this person to change or do? Decide whether to act or not, and then plan when and how.

STICK TO THE FACTS - When considering your options, be logical, rational and specific. What exactly did this person do? Identify actual behaviours (not emotional reactions) before you take steps to deal with them.

MAKE YOURSELF HEARD (though not with a raised voice of course) – Difficult conversations should only occur face to face. Straight-talking communication combined with tact and strategy – remember Control Your Actions – no shouting (or swearing)!

We can help employers equip employees, supervisors and managers to better understand the benefits of working together and communicating constructively through a variety of approaches – from short awareness workshops to manager training either through face to face coaching and training or through our new on-line learning resource on our website. In particular our on-line training course on Conflict provides useful information on different personality types and how to identify them - click here

Greater impact can sometime be had through a wider programme of education within the workforce and we have a variety of different training solutions in this area. If you would like to hear more do contact us.

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