There is no law that says we have to like our work colleagues, but it certainly helps. What we do need is a proper working relationship with them.

If someone doesn’t fit in and behaves in a way that annoys others, this can be a real problem. It can make the team dysfunctional and harm the business.

Neil, one of my Book Group members, is in this situation. He owns a clothing factory so he usually comes to our meetings stylishly dressed. Last time he arrived early wearing old, worn clothes. Over a cup of tea, he told me why.

He had been working as a cutter on the factory floor because one of the cutting team refused to work with the head cutter.

The head cutter had accused the others of not using the equipment properly, saying they were too messy. He introduced pedantic new tidiness rules and was enforcing them to the letter. He was often rude and uncooperative with his team.

The team was in disarray and orders were running late. Then one of the cutters decided he had had enough, and took the rest of the week off. Neil had to step in and manage the crisis by calming them down and doing the work. He knew he could not ignore the problem.

He asked if he could just dismiss the head cutter. I said he could not do that now. He must undertake a two-stage response – try to manage the problem, and only if that did not succeed could he consider dismissal.

Stage one could include:

  • Investigating the problem from both sides..
  • Making sure all team members are fully trained in their tasks.
  • Appointing a supervisor for the team.
  • Having regular team meetings, facilitated by someone outside the team.
  • Having informal discussions with the head cutter about the problem and his working relationships.
  • Getting a mediator/counsellor to come to the workplace to work with the team.
  • Arranging for the head cutter to see a counsellor who has expertise in workplace relationships.
  • Warning the head cutter to stop the offending behaviour.

If the situation in the cutting department does not improve within a reasonable time, Neil might be justified in dismissing the head cutter if:

  • The head cutter has received warnings but hasn’t improved his behaviour.
  • Neil considers alternatives to dismissal, such as moving the head cutter (if allowable under his employment agreement).
  • Neil follows a fair process in reaching his decision to dismiss.
  • A high level of incompatibility remains between the head cutter and the team and this is largely the head cutter’s fault.
  • The team is sufficiently small or has to work so closely together that the situation is no longer tenable.

Neil looked relieved, said he now had a plan to work to. As he left with a grin he said: “I think this will cut it.” Ouch.

He said perhaps we could apply similar principles to our Book Group when members got pedantic. I think not!

By Penelope Ryder-Lewis, first published in The Dominion Post

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