I remember those words by Woody Guthrie in a little song we learned in grade school.  Have you ever noticed that certain combinations of people just can’t “get along” and create discord while other pairings of people generate harmony?  One of my nicknames for my middle son is “The Sheriff” because he is constantly policing his younger brother.  As a result, when the three boys are together, you can expect noisy arguments and possibly hand-to-hand combat (at least that’s my assumption based upon the hole that mysteriously appeared in their bedroom wall one day – no one is giving up how that happened).  In pairs, however, my house is blissfully peaceful, even between The Sheriff and his brother, which got me to thinking about how employers deal with their own “sheriffs” or other unruly employees.

Personality conflicts are a natural part of life and not all of them are destined to disrupt your business.  The same is true of social or mental disorders that impact an employee’s ability to interact appropriately with others.  But, when you find yourself with an employee or applicant who simply just cannot work well with others, what can you do?

For many jobs, the ability to maintain effective working relationships with co-workers or supervisors and/or interact professionally with clients, customers, or the public is/are necessary job skills.  Where that is the case, good interpersonal skills should be listed as a requirement in the job description.  Courts tend not to impose their own ideas of which skills are necessary for a position; instead, they rely upon employers to make those judgments.  Having these skills in writing so employees and applicants are aware of them – and so courts can rely upon them – will go a long way toward defending employment decisions based upon an employee’s inability to work well with others.

But don’t stop there.  If interpersonal skills are important to a position, the employee’s performance reviews also should include this criterion.  Supervisors completing these reviews should be trained to provide specific examples of an employee’s “inability to work well with others.”  If an employer ends up meting out discipline (or even fails to hire) based upon the lack of this skill, you want to be able to illustrate specific examples to a court or jury to support the decision.

Moreover, if you provide the reason for any adverse employment decision to the employee/applicant, you should be honest.  It’s not easy to tell someone that you don’t think they are a “people person” or are difficult to deal with professionally, but honesty is always the best policy.  Offering up a personality conflict as the basis for a decision during litigation, rather than being (painfully) honest at the time of the decision, may result in a conclusion by the court that the reason is “new” and really just a cover-up for discrimination.

As I’ve experienced with my boys, moving people around so that conflicting personalities are kept away from each other – if done properly – can resolve some interpersonal issues.  Training and counseling may also help.  I’d be interested to hear how you’ve handled these issues in your workplaces.  You can post comments below this article.

Vanessa Towarnicky's primary focus is in the area of labor and employment law. She has been involved in representing clients in various employment cases, including sexual harassment; deliberate intent; age, race, and disability discrimination; wrongful discharge; and various other employment-related torts. She is admitted to various state and federal courts as well as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
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