Don’t let poor relationships fester: address issues sooner

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Don’t let poor relationships fester: address issues sooner

Inevitably issues arise between people in groups at work. But if they’re allowed to grind on for too long, fester, and grow chronic, you – as business owner – could end up with big problems.

Don’t let that happen. Take interpersonal issues at work seriously.

One of our recent ICAEW Legal Alerts concerned a particular situation – a consultant surgeon at serious odds with his colleagues.

The piece describes a ‘dysfunctional working environment’, where relations grew poor enough that the surgeon agreed to 3 months’ unpaid leave and an ‘internal investigation recommended management training and mediation’.

Dysfunctional environment

‘Poor working relations, involving allegations of bullying and race discrimination, between a consultant surgeon and his colleagues created a dysfunctional environment at work’, says the Legal Alert.

Things didn’t improve.  

While he was away, according to the piece, accusations continued to be made, both ways, including his being reported to the police – who ‘took no action’ – and the General Medical Council.

No action taken

‘Further investigations recommended that steps should be taken to improve relations, but no action was taken.’

Also, the surgeon was not kept in the loop, according to the Legal Alert – unlike his colleagues still at work.

After the 3 months, he didn’t return, arguing ‘that the outstanding issues with his colleagues meant it was impossible for him to return to work without affecting patient safety. He also said he was worried about being arrested (his employer had not told him the police had decided to take no further action).’

Obviously, this is a very particular environment – and an extreme case – where lives are at stake. However, the principle holds.

People can’t do their work properly in an environment poisoned by poor relationships, or ongoing grievances. Not without real support.

Unfair dismissal

In this case, the surgeon was dismissed – unfairly, as it was later deemed.

‘His employer said it could not deal with his complaints unless he came back to work’, reads the Legal Alert.

‘Finally, he was dismissed for unauthorised absence following a disciplinary hearing, and he claimed unfair dismissal.’

The Employment Tribunal found in his favour.

‘It found that the treatment of his absence as unauthorised was unfair because the employer had not taken the circumstances into account, and had failed to take steps to improve relations at work. It was particularly unfair given that returning to work in a dysfunctional department could put lives at risk – there was a clear link between the poor relations and that risk.’

Seek, and act on, solutions

The wider lesson to us all is not to let relationships we know aren’t working continue without addressing the issues. Don’t let your working environment descend into dysfunction.

If you know in your heart of hearts there’s an issue that’s festering, act now, though that may feel awkward.

Things are unlikely to improve otherwise.

Here’s the Legal Alert Recommendation:

‘Employers should ensure they seek, and act on, solutions to improve poor relations at work, for example, when investigating grievances – before deciding whether to insist an employee returns to work’.

See the full Legal Alert here.

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