Q: Two of my employees have never gotten on. While they’re capable of working together on some limited tasks, they consistently snipe at each other over trivial matters. I’ve tried to stay out of it, but the inevitable has happened: one has accused the other of bullying him.
He’s written a pretty formal email, outlining the latest (relatively minor) incident in a long back and forth, claiming it’s part of a pattern of bullying, and asking what I propose to do about it. As I see it, they’ve both been dishing out plenty of attitude to each other.
Really, I’d have expected two grown adults to have sorted out their differences, but I’m clearly being dragged into things. I’ve read and heard of businesses getting in real difficulty with cases like this, and being stung for five-figure payouts – my company simply can’t afford that. How do I avoid getting involved and putting my business in jeopardy?
A: The first thing to do is to change your goals: you’re already involved now, and trying to stay out of it will put your company in danger.
If you don’t address the allegation of bullying, then the employee will be able to quit and claim that constructive dismissal – the creation of an intolerable working environment – has taken place. I’m not suggesting that this is his aim, but your employee will have the evidence he needs to bring a case to the Rights Commissioner Service (RCS) at the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) if you simply ignore the email.
Conversely, if you get heavy-handed and discipline the person accused of bullying, that sets a dangerous precedent: it won’t be the last time that someone escalates mundane tension with a serious accusation. You could also be accused of unfair conduct, and facing a trip to the LRC.
My advice, if you genuinely feel that the sniping and backbiting has been a two-way process, would be an attempt at mediation. Reply to the email, telling your employee that you take these allegations extremely seriously, and that you intend to carry out an initial investigation. Include the accused employee on the email and invite them both to a meeting where they can bring an advocate.
If you’re correct in your assessment of the situation, both parties will likely come with a long list of grievances that largely cancel each other out – let them both say their piece. Mediating between the two, you should probably then seek a commitment from both to change their behaviour and treat each other with professional courtesy. I’d also suggest adjusting their hours or responsibilities to limit their exposure to each other. From then on, you should treat any breach in professional courtesy between the pair as a serious matter. That way, even if either party makes a complaint, you can demonstrate that you made every effort to resolve this personality clash.
If the thought of chairing a potentially tricky meeting fills you with dread, or you fear that it could turn into a three-ring circus, you could seek the services of a professional mediator. The cost of this shouldn’t be prohibitive, while having the perspective of someone from outside the workplace may help your employees see that they’re being ridiculous – or let you see if one person is genuinely crossing a line.