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Minor disagreements and the occasional argument are common features of New Zealand workplaces. However, sometimes a dispute between employees will rise to a serious level. If your business has two or more employees who refuse to cooperate or work together, this can mean a fundamental breakdown in their working relationship. This is also called incompatibility. There are a few ways to manage incompatibility, including disciplinary action in rare cases.

This article will set out: 

  • what incompatibility is; 
  • how your business can think about managing it; and
  • whether incompatibility can justify a misconduct process and disciplinary action.

What Is Incompatibility?

Incompatibility is when a dispute or disagreement between employees becomes so serious that they cannot, or refuse to, work together. Of course, this presents some real problems for your business. Firstly, you have the immediate problem of one or multiple employees not willing to do their job. Additionally, the workplace can generally become a less positive and productive place as a consequence of the dispute. It can be tricky to build a cohesive and happy team when a few people do not get along at all or have a serious issue with each other. 

How Should Your Business Manage Incompatibility?

Ideally, any problems between your staff members will be resolved by the parties involved discussing their concerns and problems and coming to a workable agreement. If they cannot do so, you have a few options. You can:

  • try to informally talk to the employees in question;
  • try to work out what the problem is; and
  • consider some possible solutions.

If the employees work in close proximity, you could consider something as simple as having them sit elsewhere in the office. Alternatively, you could have them collaborate with a different employee on a particular task. 

Suppose the incompatibility is so serious that they cannot resolve the issue themselves, and other attempts by the business do not work. In that case, you should look to engage an independent third party such as a mediator to assist. At this stage, you should look to get expert assistance from an employment lawyer, particularly if the relationship breakdown is affecting other staff.

Can Incompatibility Justify a Misconduct Process and Disciplinary Action?

Yes, on rare occasions, a breakdown between employees can justify disciplinary action. Sometimes problems occurring over a period of time are so severe that it becomes unworkable for the employee(s) to stay in their roles. However, this should only be considered in extreme circumstances when the employment relationship is in jeopardy.  You should think about a formal process only when:

  • an employee has a serious working or employment relationship breakdown with another employee who is acting badly towards them. Warnings to stop their bad behaviour have not worked;
  • attempts to mediate between the two employees have not been successful; and
  • the breakdown is largely the fault of the employee.

You then follow a fair process in taking action.

Importantly, the breakdown may be largely due to the business or employer’s behaviour in some respect. For instance, if you knew about the dispute but did not get involved in a reasonable way or for a long period of time. In that case, you may not be able to take disciplinary action against the employees. The law in New Zealand is clear that an employee cannot be dismissed for incompatibility when their employer was largely at fault. 

It is very rare to discipline or dismiss an employee for incompatibility. All parties should have the opportunity to seek advice and get representation. Businesses should appreciate the risk that an employee dismissed in this way will raise a personal grievance against their employer. Generally, it is much better to try informal processes such as those covered above or get a third party such as a mediator involved. This increases the chances of the dispute being resolved amicably or at least productively. It also decreases the chances your business is held to have not acted reasonably in the circumstances. 

Key Takeaways

There are a few different options for your business if you have two employees who have a relationship breakdown so serious that they refuse to work together. If employees cannot solve their dispute between themselves, you should look to informal processes as a first step to try to help. If there are ways of separating the employees, which the employees agree to, this can be a simple solution. You can also look at getting a mediator or other trusted third party involved. As a final recourse, you can consider disciplinary action but should only do so in the most severe circumstances. If you want to know more about managing incompatibility issues between employees or yourself and an employee, contact LegalVision’s employment lawyers on 0800 005 570 or fill out the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is incompatibility?

It is a fundamental breakdown between two or more employees where they refuse to work together.

What is the best way of managing employees who refuse to work together?

Informal management in a supportive way is the best way to resolve disputes between employees, as it involves trying to find a solution that all parties can agree on. This increases the chance that the employees can stay happy and productive at work and is usually more effective than a formal process.

Can incompatibility lead to disciplinary action or dismissal?

Yes, but only in very rare cases. The breakdown in the relationship must be the employee’s fault for disciplinary action to be possible. As an employer, you should be able to show that you have acted reasonably and tried to resolve the dispute in a timely manner.

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