Case study: When kindness turns to conflict…

Sometimes the relationship with an employee can develop into friendship and those friend / employee lines can get blurred, particularly if one takes advantage of the situation. We were approached by a small family run business looking for a HR matter. The employee in question had been employed for over two years and in that time a close and personal bond had taken place, an instant red flag. They were like treated like a member of the family by the employer and were even gifted a holiday. After a while the employee had started to refuse undertaking basic tasks like making the odd delivery. These odd jobs were very reasonable management requests, but were responded to with protests that the tasks were not in their job description. The employer was obviously astounded and felt more and more that the employee was starting to abuse their close relationship.

The owners of the small business felt it was time to take the matter into hand and called for a meeting with the employee to raise the issue. During the meeting the employee stormed out refusing to speak further, going on to not turn up for work the following day. When the employer attempted to check in on the employee there was no response, except for a supplied sick note supplied by a doctor excusing them from work for a month. Despite the obvious animosity forming the employer couldn’t realistically afford to cover them financially, but without further discussion began paying SSP as well as discretionary sick pay on top. A financial contribution which would have financial implications on the business, but they were still happy to pay.

The employer continued to do so for a total of two months of absence despite no communication from their employee, however had discovered from other employees that there had been abusive and derogatory comments made about the business as well as co-workers on social media in this time by the employee. The employer felt that something had to be done and sought us out for professional HR support.

Structuring the case

I reviewed the case in depth and agreed that the employee had been taking advantage of the employer’s good natured approach. I advised the client that I would begin the process by writing to the employee, inviting them to a meeting with myself and the clients to discuss the absence from work. I had to make sure before sending the invitation that the client was comfortable with the planned meeting format whereby I would run the meeting as an intermediary, but working on behalf of the client. I had a clear timeline of events and well as documented evidence of the steps taken so far to reach out to the employee.

The meeting

I have to say at this point that we were all very surprised when the employee arrived for the meeting. I was sat alongside the client and gave the employee their legal statutory rights, making sure they were understood. This always helps me to identify any potential risk to the employer which can be minimised if needed.

The employee claimed to have had mental health issues and despite not having previously been disclosed to the employer it is always a very sensitive area to deal with. Mental health is not something to take lightly. It is mostly unseen and can relate to many mood or characteristic changes. Although it is so easy for an employee to claim living with mental health problems it has to be handled with care and diligence. I asked the employee how the business could provide support in light of this information. The mood in the room immediately changed as the employee became verbally abusive to their employers and even me. The employee stated that their health issues were a private matter and continued with a torrent of abuse to the point of threatening the employers and their business. We were all shocked with the level of anger and abuse from the employee, especially my clients, however we all tried to remain calm in order to help diffuse the situation. It was at that point that the meeting was wrapped up and brought to a close.

After the meeting I suggested a conversation with just me and my clients. We discussed the meeting in detail and with their blessing I wrote a letter to the employee advising that my clients and the business as a whole was doing everything they could to provide support. I also included a wealth of information about further support that was available to help the employee. The response from the employee was simply another doctors note for one more month of being signed off from work. I advised my clients to only pay SSP, not out of any malice but purely to minimise further costs to the business. They also arranged cover to support the remaining employees within the business as this one situation has had a knock on effect through the whole workforce.

The aftermath

The employee continually refused to meet again regarding the matter.

At this point it was clear that there was a breakdown in the employment relationship and the employee and my clients both stated that they didn’t want to work together anymore. Due to the risk to the business and threats of tribunal made by the employee my clients expressed that they didn’t want a tribunal situation and asked me to explore other options. We decided to approach the situation with a “without prejudice” conversation and offered a settlement agreement. This was met with a further and increased level of abuse from the employee. Despite the many attempts to support them they refused to talk with the exception of refusal of the extremely generous offer made to them by my clients.

The offer was withdrawn after two weeks of negotiations. Together we contacted ACAS (a body of impartial workplace experts) to utilise their early conciliation service and after three further weeks, we finally settled the case and I wrote a COT3 agreement. This is a legally bound enforced contract entered into during conciliation, whereby the matter cannot be taken to tribunal once the offer is accepted. It was signed off and the case was closed.

In theory my clients could have disciplined and potentially dismissed the employee, but they simply didn’t want the stress or the hassle. I am convinced that they were holding out for the person they knew to return after whatever episode they were going through. Only when enough was enough they were forced to take action.

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