Rows at work: from bad to worse

Sometimes my job feels like arriving late at a party that’s gone terribly wrong, with people shouting at each other and throwing accusations around, while I try to work out what I’ve missed, how things fell apart and what the best options are to calm everything down again.

If any dispute drags on, there’s a risk that opinions get fixed and everything that subsequently happens is viewed with more hostility and suspicion that perhaps it deserves. It depends on the individuals involved, of course, and their communication and people skills. But sometimes people find themselves locked into a running dispute with someone that they just can’t seem to get through to.

I experienced it recently with an Employment Tribunal claim. My client was a small company where a former manager had resigned and was claiming constructive dismissal. Her claim made them sound like the kind of people you wouldn’t let near your children or pets. These people, according to her, had taken over her business and then belittled her, taking regular opportunities to criticise her through the year they worked together until she just couldn’t take any more and had to leave.

There were some pretty obvious issues from the outset but the biggest one was the timing. The claim was made 3 days too late (people have 3 months to make this kind of claim after their employment ends). I queried that with the Tribunal office, hoping for a quick decision, but the Judge decided to arrange a short hearing just on that issue and the client would have to file a response to the claim anyway. This could just be a short letter saying the claim was made after the deadline. The former manager would be given a chance to argue that she needed more time to make the claim, for whatever reason she came up with.

So I worked with the company’s owners to identify what their options were. The owners had a very different story: the former manager had been running a failing business, she had approached them to take over, discussions and negotiations had taken 18 months and everything had gone smoothly until they started working together. In fact, they had all known each other for years as friends and neighbours.

When problems began, they didn’t realise immediately that perhaps she was used to being in charge and not adjusting well to being managed. They tried repeatedly to win her round, being friendly and supportive, until the point where she resigned and they were left dazed and confused by the whole experience. Having got entangled in a dispute and unable to find a way out, they probably thought it was finally over – then the Tribunal claim arrived. They were looking back and wondering how their friendships fell apart and how everything they had said and done to try to help was now reinterpreted as criticism and abuse.

I’m being objective, by the way, because there were lots of emails and other documents which helped make the situation clearer. Some had the classic signs of a dispute where somebody’s attitude is fixed, for example referring to “your nasty email” when they see a neutrally-worded message but they’re projecting hostile meanings into it.

I worked with them and advised them to file a fuller response than the Tribunal had asked for. My reasoning was that I anticipated that the claimant’s lawyer, who only knew one side of the story, would see a detailed response which provided more information (making it clear the claim would be strongly defended) and reconsider the strength of the claim. We worked together and produced a comprehensive account setting out their side of the story.

It worked: 3 days after filing the response, the claim was withdrawn. I bet the conversation with the lawyer was pretty heated but the lawyer’s words got through and perhaps made her think that maybe her former colleagues weren’t evil after all. Or perhaps not and it was just a stark warning that she wouldn’t be successful that made her drop the claim.

The clients breathed a big sigh of relief and life goes on. There are no winners in a case like this: you just have to find a way out for everyone. If the case had gone ahead, she had little chance of success and would have run up large bills (Tribunal fees plus her lawyer’s costs). In the unlikely scenario that she went ahead and won, it would have only resulted in a fairly small award because she found another job quickly. Again, a classic sign that a long-running dispute is pushing someone to keep arguing but they’re probably not looking for a positive outcome.