FE Colleges, in common with most employers, have their share of workplace personality clashes. A serious breakdown in relationships will, in extreme cases, inevitably result in a dismissal of once or more staff. However, a reasonable process will still need to be followed before such a dismissal, given the high risk of potential claims, as a college found to its cost in Shahgaldi v Guildford College. An Employment Tribunal (ET) ordered it to pay more than £60,000 in compensation to one of its former lecturers who was found to have been unfairly dismissed.
The background to the case was that the college regarded the inappropriate behaviour of the lecturer as the primary cause of a breakdown in personal relationships within her department. The college noted that three of her colleagues had cited her conduct as a factor which contributed to their decisions to resign. Many perceived her behaviour as challenging and she was dismissed on the basis that it had destroyed the relationship of trust and confidence that should exist between an employer and employee.
In ruling on her unfair dismissal claim, the ET noted the college’s concern about the sheer volume of complaints against her and the heavy resource implications of dealing with them. On the basis that many of her colleagues viewed her as a difficult person to work with, the college was also anxious about the prospect of further resignations.
In upholding her complaint, however, the ET found that the procedure followed by the college was fundamentally unfair and was from the outset aimed at justifying her dismissal. She had been given no opportunity to answer unparticularised allegations and there had been no inquiry as to whether they were in fact justified. An unfair assumption had been made that she had in every instance been at fault.
After she lodged a formal grievance, complaining of, amongst other things, failures of management, the college did not investigate. She had been suspended for eight months, pending investigation of unsubstantiated allegations, and her extended absence had led to a hardening of attitudes against her return. The ET eventually ruled that she was in no way to blame for her dismissal and awarded her a total of £62,940 in damages. Clearly an award in that order will be a hard pill to swallow in a such a case and is a stark reminder of the need for a robust process, in all cases, even when a volume of complaints all seem to point towards the need for a dismissal.
Personality clash cases can be very challenging for employers, but it is possible to manage such dismissals with a reduced level of risk. For practical support with these sensitive cases, please do get in touch.