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Editor’s Comment: Bye, bye to difficult employees

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Annie Ward
Dismissing an obnoxious and surly employee used to be the stuff of dreams but thanks to a Court of Appeal decision it has become a reality; Editor’s Comment looks at the utopia of Pleasantville.


Last month, a senior employee within an NHS Trust who was dismissed because of his ‘personality’ had his claim for unfair dismissal rejected.

“The employee who had a number of years experience as a Finance Director and was very capable at his job refused to entertain requests for assistance from other departments,” explains Michael Ball, employment partner at Halliwells.

“In fact through his negative attitude he had managed to upset a number of colleagues. Finally a decision was taken that no one could put up with him any longer. He was dismissed on the grounds of his conduct.”

Following his dismissal however he claimed compensation as the Trust was unable to name any rules that he had broken and he had received no warnings. Just saying his personality was a problem wasn’t sufficient.

Or was it?

“The Court decided it was, as his unfair dismissal claim has been rejected,” commented Ball.

“Whilst he was not guilty of misconduct the fact his colleagues had found him near impossible to work with was in itself a substantial enough reason for the dismissal to stand.

“This is good news for employers. It shows that an employee cannot get away with being deliberately difficult by refusing to cooperate with colleagues and generally making working life unpleasant.”

Ball added: “On many occasions in the past businesses have suffered because of such actions but management have felt helpless. The employee has not broken any rules and has carried out all his duties. The fact the person’s attitude is causing discord amongst employees is not a simple problem to categorise. Performance management and disciplinary options are not really appropriate and are unlikely to meet with any success.

“The court has here taken into account the reality of what a business needs from a senior employee in a position of responsibility and it has found that dismissal in such circumstances falls within a general non-specific category of fair reasons.”

I applaud the decision by the Court of Appeal in this case after all there comes a time when a sense of logic and what is just must prevail. After all businesses surely can’t be expected to keep an employee on who though perfectly able to do their job is quite inept in the social skills department even at its most primeval level.

Looking through my crystal ball I can see thousands of organisations who face this tricky dilemma day in day out. Just how these types slip through the recruitment net is a wonder. Perhaps our psychometric tests have just become too predictable or perhaps the manifestation of time has eroded some workers sense of just how to behave to others.

So what will this ruling mean for the organisations of the future? Will we all become prototypes of a utopia akin to ‘pleasantville’ and is there actually a value in having a liberal smattering of obnoxious employees as a means of a checks and balance system?

I’d like to hear your views on how this ruling will impact the HR sector of the future. Simply post your comments in the box below.

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2 Responses

  1. Employers of difficult employees beware.
    I do not know what UK law states regarding the substantive nature of any claim for unfair or unustified dismissal, so cannot really comment on the Appeal Court decision in that respect.

    In New Zealand it may not be the case, because here we hold that how someone does their job is all part of the employment package. In other words, people are not just employed to prepare the financials and balance the books as would have been the situation with this employee mentioned. They are also employed to work within the organisation; to cooperate with those where cooperation is required; etc. Therefore it is encumbant on the employer to spell this all out clearly. Unfortunately this is not how it happens most times in my country, especially with senior employees. Their job descriptions tend to be based around a list of duties with dubious outcomes such as doing the job professionally; and liaising s appropriate and so one……….pretty much meaning less stuff. UK employers may need to be careful that following on from this decision, in future the Courts may require a little more by way of clearer standards of performance.

  2. Pushing Boundaries
    I’ll add my congratulations to the NHS Trust who grapsed this particular ‘bull’ by the horns and turfed him out.

    Too often we are over-sensitive to the risk of losing a potential tribunal case, and many employment lawyers also seem to operate well within the margin of safety when giving advice. No wonder it often seems to line managers that HR exists to obstruct the achievement of what seems like a sensible business goal, rather than looking for ways to make it happen.

    Ironically it was a Finance Director who first taught me that an HR department should not boast about never losing a tribunal, because it just shows they are either championing employee rights above the employer or that they are too risk-averse to be commercial business partners.

    Tim Douglas
    [email protected]
    http://www.commercialhr.com

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