· Features

Employers have a duty to examine the impact of workplace disharmony on their business

This month a woman in New Zealand was dismissed when her emails to colleagues, which contained block capital letters, bold and red text, had apparently caused 'disharmony' within the workplace.

Workplace harmony can be fragile. Email is perhaps the most commonly blamed workplace medium for causing disagreement between colleagues as email content is often taken out of context and misunderstood.  Prior to email, all instant communication took place either in person or over the phone, where facial expressions and tone of voice insure that the room for misunderstanding is minimal. The ‘instant' nature of email also leads to replies being sent in the heat of the moment, which tends to escalate misunderstandings into full blown disagreements.  Sadly, people can be more confident in email saying things that they would not otherwise repeat in a face to face or telephone conversation.

Other potential hazards for disrupting workplace harmony arise where the employer fails to adequately define employees' roles and responsibilities, which can result in conflict from the ‘it's not my job' mentality.  

In the UK we are very much a multicultural community and yet ignorance of other cultural and religious beliefs can still lead to misplaced disagreement and resentment.    

Initial disharmony can start as a minor issue between two people, but if left unchecked can quickly escalate to involve more staff members and at the extreme end result in acts which constitute bullying and harassment.  Day to day ‘disharmony' will inevitably impact on productivity while staff make more time for the rumour mill than working.   As the disharmony worsens some will become distressed by the disharmony, which could impact on attendance and will inevitably divert management time away from running the business.  Longer term, if day-to-day disharmony continues unchecked then the workforce will develop a negative reputation, which might effect client retention and result in recruitment issues.  At worst employers could end up in court where in recent years awards of up to £800,000 have been seen for the worse cases of bullying and harassment. 

Employers should ensure they have sound legal and HR advisors who understand not only legal procedure but also the impact of employee relations.  With their support review your polices and procedures to target key areas such as email usage, dress code, equal opportunities polices and grievance procedures and them roll them out to staff through a structured training programme. 

Review your training needs and identify managers who would do well from courses that empower them to address workplace disputes and educate them on how to such disputes might arise and how they can be defused. 

Job descriptions and even the organisational structure of the business can also be reviewed to bring clarity to job roles, responsibilities and hierarchy as distorted perceptions over these particular issues almost always leads to conflict.  Employers should change their thinking to see the grievance process as a genuine opportunity to resolve differences rather than just an inconvenient legal requirement.  With the abolition of the statutory procedures in April 2009, employers are now free to have an informal stage to the grievance process, although it is important to remember to keep records and know when the informal stage should be escalated to a more formal process.  Training managers to understand this process and use it effectively can be very beneficial to the business.

To protect the business in the event of disharmony that cannot be controlled employers may want to look at the number of HR and legal solutions on the market, which many solicitors now offer. 

It is the employer who values workplace harmony and addresses issues as they arise who will avoid a detrimental impact on their business. 

Vanessa James is a partner and head of employment at SA Law