Managing difficult characters in the workplace - how do you solve a problem like Mario?

5 September 2014

Following Liverpool FC’s £16m offer, Mario Balotelli (former striker at AC Milan) will spend this season at Anfield; but only if he behaves. Described by José Mourinho as unmanageable (and famous for *that* video clip involving a troublesome training bib…), Balotelli is a controversial figure, having clashed with most of his managers during his brief career.

The striker’s new contract allegedly includes clauses which require him to adhere to an elite code of conduct or face serious disciplinary and financial sanctions. The purpose of these clauses is to curb Balotelli’s behaviour, raising the question: what can employers do when faced with a problem employee?

Whilst different considerations apply in a footballing context to those which apply in other industries (such as financial services, technology and media, or banking and regulatory) personality clashes in the workplace, irreconcilable differences between colleagues, or dealing with an employee’s behavioural issues can create significant problems for any employer. The tribunals have held that where an employee’s difficult personality substantially disrupts their employer’s business, or impacts upon that individual’s behaviour towards colleagues and clients, an employer is entitled to dismiss them.

Any such dismissal is not, however, regarded as one on grounds of conduct (as you might expect). Instead, it is a dismissal for “some other substantial reason”. This is because the reason for the employee’s termination is not their conduct per se, but rather the fact that the parties simply cannot work with each other.

Employers need to exercise caution when dealing with difficult individuals. Where an issue arises due to the conflicting views, opinions or beliefs of employees, and those views, opinions or beliefs are protected by discrimination legislation (for example, they relate to religion, race, sexual orientation, disability or any other protected characteristic) employers must be careful not to expose themselves to discrimination and/or unfair dismissal claims.

What can employers do to protect themselves?

  • Investigate apparent personality clashes or disruptive behaviour fully. An employee may be acting out for valid reasons (for example, if they are struggling with stress, personal issues, are being bullied etc.). This may affect what action you adopt in the circumstances, how you approach the individuals involved and how you discuss their behaviour with them.
  • If employees are not getting along, consider inviting them to attend workplace mediation either with a member of your own HR team or an external HR consultant. This will enable the employees to air their issues in an open forum, with a view to finding a constructive way forward.
  • It may be appropriate to relocate employees. Consider internal or external secondments, or a sideways move. Discuss this openly with the individuals involved, and be careful not to expose yourself to any allegations of favouritism, marginalisation or having demoted someone. If you do so, you will run the risk of the affected employee(s) resigning and claiming constructive unfair dismissal or alleging discrimination.
  • Consider whether it is appropriate to change an individual’s line management or departmental structure if they are struggling with particular people in their team.
  • Consider having well-drafted anti-bullying and harassment policies in place (if you do not already) and operating a “zero tolerance” policy. There can be a fine line between personality clashes and bullying/harassment. It is important to send a clear message to staff.
  • Include well-drafted disciplinary and grievance policies in your staff handbook. If you do not have a staff handbook, consider having these policies in place in any event, so as to afford you and your staff certainty.
  • Include suitable termination, notice and payment in lieu of notice, suspension and garden leave provisions in your contracts of employment thereby giving you maximum flexibility to terminate an individual’s employment if appropriate.
  • Also consider including a “good behaviour” clause in your contracts of employment. This will enable you manage your employees’ expectations as to what may happen in the event of them acting out or bringing your business into disrepute.
  • If you genuinely believe that there is no other option available to you but to dismiss an employee because of their personality or behavioural issues, implement a fair dismissal process and be sure to document your fair and proportionate reasons for terminating their employment, including how their continued employment is having (and would have) a significant impact on your business, other members of staff, customers, suppliers, workplace morale, goodwill etc.

The above list provides some helpful guidance for an employer to consider when faced with a sensitive situation involving employees in the workplace. However, seeking legal advice before taking any action so as to guard against the risk of a disgruntled employee issuing proceedings against you is key, and cannot be underestimated.

An amended version of this article first appeared on HR Magazine in September 2014.

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