How Employers Can Deal With the Problem Employee (and Avoid Costly Employment Law Claims)

 

problem employee

There’s a lad from outside Mullingar who has a peculiar way of making a living.

I’ll tell you about that another time, though.

Because last week he paid me a visit on different business: the common problem of the “problem employee”?

How do you handle this familiar problem?

Many employers come to me with a massive sense of frustration, sometimes anger.

Their emotions range from a sense that employment law in Ireland is loaded in favour of the employee, to fear of taking any action for fear of a costly claim to the WRC or Court from the employee.

What can you do if an employee is misbehaving or demonstrating a bad attitude or failing to perform or is guilty of misconduct or is forever missing days or guilty of persistent poor timekeeping?

Or is a liability or just not right for your organisation?

Or is he on the fiddle?

Small employers, without the benefit of trained HR professionals in their business, are often frozen with fear and indecision.

Quite frankly, they don’t have a clue what to do or what they are allowed to do to handle a problem employee.

Some employers take a metaphorical lump hammer to the problem; others take the approach of “being nice and hoping for the best”.

Neither of these approaches are recommended, quite frankly.

The Options

Firstly, you need to be mindful of a certain critical time period: 12 months’ employment or “one year’s continuous service”, according to the Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977.

Generally, an employee can only bring a claim for unfair dismissal when he/she has one year’s continuous service in the job. There are exceptions, for example, a dismissal on a discriminatory ground, or a dismissal because the employee has made a protected disclosure (Protected Disclosures Act, 2014).

By and large, though, the employee needs a year’s service.

So, if an employee is not working out, or is simply not right for your organisation, the contract of employment can be terminated.

Over one year’s service?

If the employee has more than one year’s service it is more problematic for you as an employer. The employee has more protection by virtue of the Unfair Dismissals act, 1977.

It provides that an employee can only be dismissed on specified grounds, provided there are substantial grounds justifying the dismissal :

  • Capability, competence, qualifications
  • Conduct
  • Redundancy
  • Illegality
  • Other substantial grounds

To dismiss on one of these grounds you need to ensure all your ducks are in a row; this article which I have written in the past about how to legally dismiss an employee should help.

You do need, however, to afford fair procedures and natural justice to the employee in terminating the employment as these are constitutional rights.

There is one further situation that arises: frustration of the contract. This could arise where an employee becomes ill or suffers an injury that makes it impossible for him/her to do the work. In other words, the employee is unable to fulfill his/her obligations due to incapacity.

It is said, then, that the contract is at an end as it has been frustrated.

Practical examples

Let’s look at some practical examples.

“Susan” is a secretary/receptionist in a medical practice. Her attitude is poor, her absenteeism rate is high, her work is poor, and worst of all, she has plenty of “sass” going on in her interaction with her boss because her boss is a non national.

If she has over 12 months’ service, the option for you as employer in this situation is to manage the situation professionally. You would use a performance improvement plan and/or the disciplinary procedure to let Susan know that her performance and conduct is unacceptable and will have to improve.

You would ensure to afford her the full benefit of your disciplinary procedure and ensure she is aware that improvements are required and if they are not forthcoming the sanctions set out in the disciplinary procedure will be imposed.

If she does not have 12 months’ service and is on probation either because she is in her first 6 months’ of employment or she has had her probation extended, her employment could be terminated.

“Gianluca” is a part time employee but appears to be angling to bring some sort of claim against you. He has already suffered a minor injury-back problem- as a result of lifting some stuff in the store room.

He’s due back to work shortly after his injury and his solicitor is writing to you about accepting liability for Gianluca’s injury. You have observed him carefully for a couple of years now and you know he is just gagging to quit the job and bring some sort of claim to the WRC (Workplace Relations Commission).

You are, quite frankly, walking on eggshells.

What to do? Firstly, report the personal injury suffered in the workplace to your insurer, if you have not done so already, and let the insurer deal with it.

Secondly, when he does come back, deal with him professionally, just like Susan above. Provided you respect the laws and don’t act unlawfully, you have nothing to get overly anxious about.

You do need to ensure you are giving him his correct rest breaks, holiday and public holiday entitlements, and all other employment obligations.

But once you are satisfied you are doing so you need not worry excessively.

The laws are not completely imbalanced or stacked against you, and you have rights too. It’s a myth to say otherwise.

For example, at its most basic Gianluca needs to perform in accordance with the contract of employment, and follow reasonable directions of you as employer and any of his line managers.

Even the Supreme Court held earlier in 2017 held that every wrong that an employee suffers in the job does not give rise to a claim or a legal cause of action.

So stay calm. The dice is not loaded. There is no need to act on any fleeting impulses you might have to take him into a darkened room and teach him a lesson!

Fianlly, Paul is a blocklaying contractor and Jimbo, one of his lads, is threatening to drive him around the bend. He is frequently missing from work, just texts that morning or the eveing before and says he won’t be in.

At this stage paul is getting suspicious that Jimbo is working for someone else a couple of days a week, as it seems to be the same days he is missing all the time.

In any event, the response from Jim should be the same as for Gianuca and Susan: invoke the disciplinary procedure after having the chat/some informal counselling with Jimbo to let him know the rate of “no shows” is unacceptable.

You will see that all these problems can be resolved in a professional way with no undue concern for claims against you, provided you stay calm and deal with the issues coolly and calmly.

Conclusion

Employment law is fundamentally based on the contract of employment.

If you go back through the centuries there was a “master/servant” relationship. If you fast forward a few hundred years there still exists a huge disparity in power between the employer and employee in negotiating a contract of employment.

Generally, it’s a case of, “take it or leave it”.

So statute law such as the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 and the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997 were introduced by legislators to protect employees and redress the inherent imbalance in equality of arms between employer and employee.

That’s all that’s happened.

So, if you are an employer, stay cool, abide by the laws and you won’t need to worry excessively about the whole shooting match being loaded against you.

Warning for Employees: Don’t Let an Unhealthy Obsession Cost You Your Job

It’s an easy mistake to make.

It happens the best of us.

Lately, I have come across quite a few instances of this problem when speaking with employees about their issues.

And it saddens and frustrates me.

Let me explain, shall I?

All of us know people who rub us up the wrong way. It may be intentional or completely unintentional but there is one or two people out there who just really wind us up.

When it’s in the workplace, though, this can be a real problem. Especially if the other person is your supervisor or manager.

And the danger you need to guard against is letting this become an obsession for you. Yes, obsession. I have seen it too many times in the last year or so, and it is really frustrating.

I have seen perfectly rational, intelligent, hardworking employees who have come to me for advice. After speaking with them for a little while and unpacking the issues, it often comes down to one individual in the workplace with whom they have an issue.

The problem, though, is they really let it get in on them. To the point of obsession. To the point where the situation is actually having an adverse impact on the employee’s health.

And they are thinking of quitting their job.

What frustrates me most is that they cannot seem to step back from the nitty gritty of the situation and look at their “problem” from a slight distance away.

If they could only do this they would see that they are putting far too much importance on what the manager or supervisor or colleague says or does. They see every interaction as a personal attack on them, their opinion, their integrity, their sense of self.

What’s really happening in a lot of the situations that I have encountered is quite simple: the employee who has come to me has allowed a situation to develop where they have created a massive big mountain of a problem when, in reality, it is only a molehill.

And the hardest part for me? It is incredibly difficult to get them to see this.

And the problem then?

The employee will either overreact or basically talk themselves out of a job and quit a perfectly good job that they like.

Rocky, the boxer

Many years ago we had a lovely boxer dog called “Rocky”. She spent her days spreadeagled on “her” sofa in our kitchen.

But when Tom O’Shea (not his real name) set foot on our property within 80 yards of the house Rocky would jump up off the sofa, growl, bark, and the hair would stand on her back.

We never knew why Rocky reacted like this, but we suspect Tom may have given her a kick some time in her past. And she never forgot.

I am always reminded of Rocky when I speak with these employees because they too react like Rocky when they come into contact with the other colleague.

The difference, however, is the employee is human and can choose how to react; Rocky on the other hand had less sophisticated tools at her disposal. And she just growled.

Viktor E. Frankl

I think, too, of Viktor E. Frankl.

Frankl was a prominent Viennese psychiatrist during the Nazi’s rise to power and was Jewish. Frankl and his family were packed off to concentration camps and he saw his entire family, incluing his pregant wife and children going to the gas chamber

Frankl spent time in 3 concentration camps including Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

But Frankl made an important observation, one which led him to write a bestselling book in later years, “Man’s Search for Meaning”.

His observation was that the people who did best and survived the camps where those people who gave support and their last piece of bread to others. These were people who, despite their circumstances, chose how they reacted to their circumstances.

They did not let their circumstances dictate how they acted or reacted or thought.

They chose.

And Frankl observed that everything can be taken away from you, apart from your ability to choose how you will react in any given situation.

This is something that each individual can choose.

If you are an employee with a bete noire, a nemesis, someone who winds you up so bad that you are making yourself ill and considering walking away from your job, think about Viktor Frankl.

Think about the power to choose how you will react, and don’t give the other person who winds you up the power to compel you to react like Rocky, our much loved boxer dog.

Try to retain perspective on the issue, and look at it from a distance.

I know that’s not easy, but getting the opinion of others might help and prevent you from overreacting in a situation which has simply lost its perspective for you.

2 Years’ Salary Awarded to Van Driver in Unfair Dismissal Case

the labour court

The maximum amount that can be awarded in an unfair dismissal case is 2 years’ remuneration (section 7, Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977).

I had never seen it awarded until this case, DHL Limited and Michael Coughlan, in which Mr. Coughlan was awarded €72,042.88 by way of compensation.

On the 28th July, 2017 the Labour Court handed down its decision in an appeal by the employer of the previous WRC adjudicator decision in the employee’s favour.

Background

The background to this case is an WRC adjudicator decision of 30th January, 2017 to decide that the employee should be reinstated in his job as a DHL driver.

Mr. Coughlan was employed as a van driver for 11 years until his summary dismissal in November, 2015.

Mr. Coughlan brought a claim for unfair dismissal to the WRC and the Adjudicator decided that the sanction imposed on Mr. Coughlan for an accident involving his vehicle was, “disproportionate having regard to all the circumstances.” She ordered reinstatement from September, 2016, when the WRC hearing was held.

Mr. Coughlan had previously accumulated written warnings, with a duration of 12 months each, for a couple of incidents involving his driving, but had no such incidents for 2 years prior to the incident in 19th October, 2015 which led to his dismissal. Mr. Coughlan, at the investigation meeting, admitted that he had misjudged the space available to him while passing another vehicle at the Cork Depot of the employer, and apologised. The damage to the van cost €2,500 to repair.

Following the disciplinary hearing the employer decided to dismiss Mr. Coughlan for gross misconduct involving the incident and damaging of company property. However, the employer’s letter advising him of his summary dismissal made reference to his previous driving problems, even though the last warning he had was expired for some time.

The employer, in its response to Mr. Coughlan’s appeal, relied on his previous record of driving incidents and written warnings, and gave evidence that DHL could not rely on the employee to drive the company vehicles safely and no other option, for example, redeployment, was open to the employer on this occasion.

The head of operations of the employer gave evidence that he felt it appropriate to take the previous driving record of Mr. Coughlan into account when hearing his appeal to the dismissal, notwithstanding that the previous warnings had expired.

Labour Court Findings

The Labour Court found that Mr. Coughlan was confronted with multiple accounts of misconduct at the disciplinary hearing, even though there was no reference to multiple allegations in the letter inviting him to the hearing. The letter only referred to his failure to protect and safeguard company property (the van).

The Labour Court also found that the employer’s decision to dismiss was motivated, partly, by what it saw as its duty of care to the public, and safety grounds; however, this was completely different from the subject matter contained in the letter inviting Mr. Coughlan to the disciplinary hearing as the letter stated he was being invited to meet the allegation of failure to protect and safeguard company property’.

The Labour Court also found that the grounds for summary dismissal without notice are very restricted, as can be seen from established jurisprudence in relation to dismissal, and a reading of Section 8 of the Minimum Notice and Terms of Employment Act 1973, which requires very bad behaviour of such a kind that no reasonable employer could be expected to tolerate the continuance of the relationship for a minute longer.

As the allegation against Mr. Coughlan was that he failed to protect and safeguard company property it was held that this could not constitute gross misconduct justifying summary dismissal, that is, without notice.

The Labour Court also found that the employer did not give due consideration to alternative sanctions short of dismissal, nor did it allow him to offer to pay for the damage to the vehicle.

Furthermore it found that the employer gave too much weight to the previous incidents concerning Mr. Coughlan’s driving, and noted that his previous written warnings had expired by the time of this incident.

The Labour Court, for the reasons set out above, decided Mr. Coughlan was unfairly dismissed.

It took into account Mr. Coughlan’s attempts to mitigate his loss by seeking new employment: He told the Court that in the period since October 2015 he has applied for some 23 or 24 jobs without success. He applied for various roles including that of courier, driver, general operative, cleaner and store person. The Respondent was called to a small number of interviews by named employers but no job offer ensued from any of them.

The Labour Court awarded him €72,042.88 by way of compensation, being the equivalent of 104 weeks’ remuneration, which it viewed was the employee’s financial loss to date attributable to the dismissal.

You can read the full case here.

The 2 Big Problems With Claiming for Bullying in the Workplace

workplace bullying

Are you being bullied at work?

No, I mean really being bullied. As in repeated inappropriate behaviour which undermines your dignity as an employee.

Let me explain.

If I got a euro for every time an employee came to me and told me he/she was being bullied in work I would be a wealthy man.

But the vast majority of the time it what is described to me is not bullying, and will not fall within the legal definition of bullying.

For example, often, the employee will tell me she has been subjected to the disciplinary procedure in the workplace. There is two problems with claiming this is bullying:

  1. It is a one off situation, and not part of a repeated pattern of behaviour which undermines the employee’s dignity;
  2. Management is entitled to invoke the disciplinary procedure in the workplace, for obvious reasons.

So, being involved in a disciplinary procedure is not bullying, per se, although if it was part of a concerted campaign of inappropriate behaviour.

On other occasions, an employee will have an issue or complaint in relation to some aspect of their work, or terms and conditions of their employment. They will, correctly, invoke the grievance procedure in the workplace, but disagree with the outcome.

They simply will not accept the decision, as it was not what they wanted or expected. The disappointment is understandable, but bullying it is not.

Remember if you raise a complaint or grievance or bring a claim or legal proceedings there is a number of potential outcomes. One of these is that you will lose. You need to be ready for this, and ready to put it behind you and move on.

The legal definition of bullying was recently affirmed in the Supreme Court decision in the Ruffley v Board of Management of St. Anne’s School. Remember, we are talking about repeated, inappropriate behaviour which undermines the dignity of the employee.

What does this mean?

Firstly, the conduct complained of must be repeated. This probably means a period of at least 6 months. It is not possible to say, with any confidence, that a lesser period will not be considered bullying. But the point you must take from this is: the inappropriate conduct must not be a one off situation, or of short duration.

Secondly, the conduct complained of as bullying behaviour must undermine the dignity of the employee. What does this mean?

According to the Supreme Court decision the type of behaviour you must prove

must be outrageous, unacceptable, and exceeding all bounds tolerated by decent society.

This, clearly, is a pretty high hurdle to clear.

The Court also held that a certain degree of robustness is required of the employee in the workplace. Instruction, direction and even, on occasion, robust management, are all necessary in a workplace to ensure efficiency, that the work gets done, and health and safety in the workplace is maintained.

The treatment you endure at work may make you very annoyed, it may upset you from time to time, you may feel it is personal, you may feel it is bullying.

But from a legal perspective, proving bullying behaviour, according to Justice Charleton in the Supreme Court, must clear a high standard of proof:

“the test for bullying is of necessity to be set very high”.

The reason for this, I presume, is that for workplaces to function management must be able to manage and organise the affairs of the workplace safely, without facing frequent Court proceedings for perceived slights, give necessary direction and instruction, and, occasionally, robust management.

The Legal Redress for Bullying

There are two substantial types of claim (one more substantial than the other) you can bring arising from being a victim of bullying, assuming that you can prove that what you have experienced is bullying, as discussed above.

  1. A Claim in Civil Court

Your claim will be that a tort (civil wrong) has occurred.

You must prove that the employer has been negligent in failing to discharge his duty of care, discharging his duty to provide a safe place of work, that you have suffered a recognised psychiatric or psychological injury as a result of that negligence, and are entitled to recover damages. You would also claim that the employer is in breach of the contract of employment in failing to deal property and promptly with your complaints.

Going to Court is expensive and, in relation to costs, the winner takes all. (Elsewhere on my site I have set out what you need to prove to win your case in Court).

2. A Claim for Constructive Dismissal

This claim is brought to the WRC (Workplace Relations Commission) and involves you quitting your job and claiming that the bullying you have suffered in the workplace has not been dealt with by the employer, and you have had no real choice but to leave your job.

This claim does not have the cost implications of going to Court, but the redress you can be awarded is significantly less, too, as you cannot be awarded damages for pain and suffering.

You can only be awarded financial loss for your loss of employment. The amount of financial loos will depend on how quickly you get a new job.

Conclusion

You will see from the above that the two main options open to you if you are a victim of bullying in the workplace have inherent difficulties.

Going to Court is a high stakes endeavour with potentially high legal costs, a high burden of proof to prove bullying, and you must be able to prove you have suffered a recognised injury of a psychological or psychiatric nature.

Going to the WRC on a constructive dismissal claim will see you losing your job and only being able to recover your financial loss for being out of work between jobs.

The two big problems with commencing some type of claim or redress for bullying in the workplace are:

  1. Satisfying the legal proof required to prove bullying
  2. The difficulties associated with the avenues of redress open to you.

If you suffer from bullying you do not have to suffer in silence. There is action you can take to resolve the difficulty.

But it is probably useful that you are aware of the difficulties at the outset.

A Tale of Discrimination (Vera’s Story)

discrimination story

Vera loved rabbits.

She used to remind me of Lennie in Steinbeck’s short novel, “Of Mice and Men”, although, unlike Lennie, she was sharp as a tack.

Vera started working in retail when she was 15, straight out of school.

She worked her way up in the retail industry-mainly small shops- and found herself as manager of a shop on the northside of Dublin after 35 mostly good years.

She got on great with her employer, Jimmy, who owned the shop, and he, like Vera, was “old school”.

He was a kind man and was happy to generously give Vera time off for family events or hospital appointments, which Vera never took advantage of.

When Jimmy came to tell her that he had sold the shop she was a little bit anxious, because she didn’t know what to expect from the new owner, or how things might change.

Her worst fears were soon realised when she met her.

Geraldine was a go-goeting, ambitious young woman of 25 who had been given a leg up in her aspiring entrepreneurial career by her father. He guaranteed the loan to buy the shop, and gave her the deposit,too.

Soon after taking over the shop Geraldine dropped a few remarks to Vera which Vera thought were inappropriate.

Little remarks like, “we will have to get our costs down, Vera, especially the wages bill”, and “how long do you think you will continue working?”, and “can we manage with less full timers?”

All the little digs worried Vera.

A few months after the change of ownership Vera’s GP recommended that she have some minor surgery carried out as the best way to deal with an ongoing medical issue she had.

Vera eventually bit the bullet and went in for the surgery.

The surgery was successful and her GP was happy with the outcome. However, he recommended Vera take it easy for 3 or 4 weeks when she went back to work-no heavy lifting, no pulling or dragging heavy stock, and to avoid stretching too vigorously.

Vera was fed up at home and was one of those people who had to be at something; she just couldn’t sit still for any longer than an hour.

So she was looking forward to going back to work.

She went to Geraldine to let her know when she would be back and what her GP had recommended by way of an easing back into the more vigorous parts of her job.

Vera was amazed with Geraldine’s reaction.

“Vera, I am not happy to let you back to work until you are fully fit to do your job in its entirety. Why don’t you wait a few more weeks until you are fully recovered?”, she said.

“But I want to go back to work now”, said Vera, “and the doctor said it would be good for me, provided I avoid some tasks for a few weeks”.

The conversation ended on a sour note, and Vera was stunned.

The next day she received an email from Geraldine saying that she could not let her return to work until she was fully fit. In her email she mentioned “health and safety” and “insurance” and “duty of care to employees”.

Vera was not going to take this lying down, she had given 35+ years of service in a job she loved and was not going to be “put out to grass like this”, as she saw it.

Vera came to see me and we had a good chat. Even though she was a small lady, bird like, she had a real steel about her. She told me she was brought up in Cabra, one of a family of 11, and she told me you soon had to learn how to stand up for yourself.

She said when she was 11 or 12 she used to go down to Croke Park on big match days and sell stuff to the crowd going to the GAA matches: apples, oranges, paper hats (the ones which, if it rained, all the colours ran out of), flags, you name it.

I told her about a case I had read about, where a man-I think he worked in a quarry in Galway- who wanted to return to work after brain surgery was dismissed and brought a claim for discrimination on the grounds of disability.

The man could only work for 20 hours per week on his return, on his doctor’s recommendation, but the employer wanted him to return to the full 39 hours.

They could not reach agreement so the employer dismissed him. The employee brought a claim under equality legislation and claimed that he was discriminated against on the grounds of disability, and the employer has failed, contrary to his legal obligation, to make “reasonable accommodation” for his return to work.

The worker was awarded €40,000 by the Equality Tribunal. (You can read more about that case here.)

It struck Vera and me that her situation appeared to be very similar to this man’s. No two cases are the same, of course, but there are certain guiding principles you can draw from cases with similar facts.

So, Vera decided to bring a claim against the employer and her claim was that she was being discriminated against by her employer on the grounds of disability, and the employer has failed, contrary to the Employment Equality Acts to make reasonable accommodation for her return to work.

Vera felt she was being effectively dismissed by the employer’s refusal to let her take it easy for a few weeks in relation to a handful of tasks.

Vera was so angry about the way she was treated that she resigned. Not long afterwards, Vera had a new position in retail, but she was not going to let this lie.

We submitted her claim to the WRC, and felt Vera had a really strong case. Close to the day of the hearing the case settled and Vera accepted a nice settlement in relation to her claim.

She felt vindicated. She was working away in her new job, but felt she had to take a stand in relation to the way she was treated, and the lack of respect shown to her by Geraldine.

Takeaway

There are 9 grounds of discrimination in Irish employment law, and disability is one of them. However, the definition of a “disability” is so broad, that even a runny nose has been held to be one.

A disability can be temporary or permanent, and can include an addiction to alcohol or drugs.

The monetary penalties for discrimination are high: up to 2 years’ remuneration for the employee from the WRC and the Circuit Court can award up to its jurisdictional limit.

And Vera?

She is working away, managing another shop, and happy to be back in full swing having made a full recovery from her surgery and the way she was treated.