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Conflict in the Office – Oh My! (Part 1 of 2)

Conflict in the Office – Oh My! (Part 1 of 2)

Date Published: 2010-02-26
Author: Christina Harris Schwinn

Conflict in the workplace is an inevitability that we all deal with on a fairly regular basis. Whether you view conflicts in the workplace as a challenge or an annoyance will depend on your perspective. Encountering difficult people–or jerks, depending on your perspective—is a fact of life and is unavoidable, especially in the work environment. While I am not a licensed psychologist, I have encountered difficult employees during my many years of practicing law and counsel clients regularly on how to address such situations. Dealing with difficult employees in the workplace presents challenges for managers and supervisors. Oftentimes, managers and supervisors choose to take the path of least resistance and avoid addressing conflict issues in the workplace. The nature of the conflict that is occurring will determine whether or not a manager or supervisor needs to intervene and take appropriate corrective action. While ignoring the occasional inappropriate comment may be the appropriate approach in certain circumstances, continuing to ignore such conduct and disruptive employees in the workplace is not in the best interests of the employer as it will adversely affect employee morale, escalate and could create liability for the employer.

Managers and supervisors should be called upon to set the proper tone for employee interactions in the workplace. It should be a given that employees are expected to treat their colleagues and customers with respect. Oftentimes, I counsel clients regarding issues relating to disruptive employees only to learn that the problem has existed for a very long time. The longer the problem persists, the more difficult it becomes to correct. When questioned about why the objectionable conduct was allowed to persist for so long, I often hear responses like “the employee is absolutely invaluable and the business cannot run without this particular employee and I was afraid if I tried to counsel him that he would quit.” I also frequently encounter managers who acknowledge that an individual is disruptive, difficult to work with and a jerk, but they do nothing because they are not sure of what to do. While a disruptive employee may be perceived to be contributing to the business’ bottom line from a financial perspective, note that there are hidden costs that a business absorbs as a result of not addressing such problems, e.g. lost productivity and the loss of good employees who seek employment elsewhere because they just cannot take it anymore. While managers and supervisors cannot guarantee that their work environments will be happy ones, managers and supervisors can take charge and take constructive steps to ensure that disruptive employees change their behavior or are shown their way to the door.

Depending on the nature of the disruptive employee’s behavior, such behavior can lead to liability for an employer especially if the employee’s disruptive behavior, belligerence, or actions are targeted towards individuals in a protected class, for example women or minorities. A recent decision from the Eleventh District Court of Appeals in a case that was based solely upon a theory of hostile work environment based upon sex reminds us that failing to take corrective action when appropriate is improper. As a matter of background, the plaintiff worked in an environment with men and management had allowed a sexually offensive environment to proliferate that adversely impacted her ability to perform her job duties. There were no allegations that any manager had sexually harassed her, but rather the case was premised upon the offensive conduct and the fact that complaints to management about the inappropriate, sexually offensive conduct were not addressed, but ignored. While the case referenced above has been remanded to the District Court for further action, the case stands as a wakeup call to employers and puts them on notice that employers can be held responsible for employee misconduct. Whether the case I mentioned above will open the door to more cases being filed in the future based solely on a hostile work environment remains to be seen.

Employers covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”) are required to establish antidiscrimination and sexual harassment policies which should be reviewed and updated to keep pace with changes in the law. While Title VII only covers employers that employ 15 or more employees, Lee County’s equal employment ordinance covers employers with 5 or more employees. The policies should be written, distributed to employees, and periodic training provided to employees to ensure that employees are aware of the policies and understand the difference between acceptable and unacceptable conduct.

When an employee complains of inappropriate conduct in the workplace it is incumbent upon management to take those complaints seriously and to investigate them and, when appropriate, to take action including appropriate disciplinary action against the employee who is accused of the conduct (not the employee who complained), including termination, if warranted. As I write this article, I am reminded of some of the outrageous responses I have heard over the years given by managers to an employee who complains of harassment, e.g. “You must be having a bad hair day. Get out of my office, I don’t have time for this.” Trust me, the quote is a direct quote that the manager wishes he never made. There is a better way to respond.

Next month’s article will discuss how to address improper employee conduct in the workplace.

A note to the reader: This article is intended to provide general information and is not intended to be a substitute for competent legal advice. This article has been reprinted with the permission of Lee Building Industry Association, www.bia.net. Questions regarding the content of this column or past columns may be e-mailed to Christina Harris Schwinn at christinaschwinn@paveselaw.com. To view past columns written by Ms. Schwinn please visit the firm’s website at www.paveselaw.com. Ms. Schwinn is an experienced employment lawyer and a partner with the Pavese Law Firm, 1833 Hendry Street, Fort Myers, FL 33901; Telephone: (239) 336-6228; Telecopier: (239) 332-2243.