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Managing the unmanageable

Could an employee be fairly dismissed on the grounds that he is unmanageable?

Grievance letters exceeding 100 pages, inappropriate language, and conduct – can an employer dismiss an employee on the grounds that he has become unmanageable?  A recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decision has supported an earlier finding that, even though the reasons stated by the employer for the dismissal were a sham and would not have amounted to a fair dismissal, the employee’s conduct of being “unmanageable” would have resulted in a fair dismissal within six months anyway. They therefore reduced the compensation awarded by 75%.

An employee was dismissed on the grounds of repeated failures to comply with management requests not to contact the employer’s executive team and a single failure to comply with a reasonable request to attend a meeting. This lead not only to a breach of trust, but also to a breakdown of the working relationship. The employment tribunal found that the employee had been unfairly dismissed.

However, the tribunal agreed that there was a breakdown in the working relationship causing the dismissal, but not because of the reasons brought forward by the employer, but rather because of “the manner of his communications and his behaviour generally” resulting in him becoming “unmanageable” and the employer looking for a legitimate route to dismiss him.

The tribunal concluded that the employee would have been dismissed within six months of the actual dismissal in any event. Despite acknowledging that an alternative approach should have been taken and that the true reasons for the dismissal were never made clear to the employee, he still contributed to his own dismissal and therefore his compensation was reduced by 75%.

Considering his conduct at work the court also concluded that any warning to change his behaviour would have been ignored by the employee. The judge noted that the employee wrote long and repetitious grievance letters, exceeding 100 pages and with inappropriate language, despite numerous requests and pleas to stop. The tribunal reasoned that on a balance of probabilities it was unlikely that the employee would have changed his behaviour.

This decision gives a little comfort to employers who are struggling with an employee who persists with multiple and lengthy complaints.  However we recommend such situations are dealt with very carefully to ensure the reason for the dismissal is genuine, that there is no question of victimisation and that there is clear evidence to show the employee’s behaviour was unreasonable and not based on legitimate concerns.