Reports of disagreement between presenters Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby of ITV’s This Morning do not reflect a new workplace phenomenon. It has always been true that colleagues fall out and end up publicly feuding in the workplace – or even exiting stage left, by one route or another.
Workplace disagreements are not necessarily a bad thing, provided they are respectfully communicated. After all, innovation relies on challenging group think and embracing diversity of thought.
But a significant rise in workplace stress and burnout brings an increased risk of disagreements becoming battles then becoming destructive frays in the bonds between colleagues.
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The challenge for employers navigating a war between talent is having to wade into an arena fraught with legal and people risk. Emotions are running high and it’s not a task for the faint hearted.
Unsurprisingly, many are tempted not to intervene and leave the issue well alone for the employees to resolve themselves. Employers would be wise to resist this temptation.
An organisation has a duty of care owed to each of its employees who are feuding, notwithstanding that their interests are often in conflict with each other and potentially the business.
The employer also needs to be mindful of its duties to other team members.
For those caught in the crossfire, wellbeing and career fulfilment are all too often collateral damage in a dysfunctional working relationship, especially one left to fester between senior people.
Unresolved battles between colleagues are fertile ground on which toxic cultures grow.
The legal risk of ignoring an issue like this is clear and ever present. Seemingly innocuous fallings out between colleagues can belie serious underlying issues like harassment or discrimination.
Failure to identify and eradicate this by leaving the issue to fizzle out with fingers crossed only exacerbates the problem and the legal risk.
An employer can say in bold letters on its website and policies that it has a respectful culture but if leadership doesn’t deal appropriately with behaviour that goes against these values then an employment tribunal will not be persuaded.
In many ways, this is a health and safety issue. With a widespread mental health crisis, increasing numbers of employees are already on the edge of burn out and prolonged sickness absence is a common effect of broken workplace relationships.
It is somewhat telling that the Health and Safety Executive, in its guidance on work-related stress and how to manage it, lists “arguments” as one of the signs of stress in a team.
Colleague battles can be both an indicator and a cause of an unhealthy work environment. Like accidents at work, ignore them at your peril.
Other regulators are increasingly focussed on healthy workplace culture.
Most recently, the Solicitors Regulation Authority amended its Code of Conduct to expressly require individuals in law firms to treat their colleagues fairly and with respect and for managers to challenge behaviour which does not meet this standard.
Quite apart from the legal and regulatory risk of ignoring the problem, research is clear that younger generations coming through into the workplace are particularly focussed on culture when making their employment decisions.
Failure to deal with embattled employees could, ultimately, endanger an employer’s ability to attract and retain its future talent.
There is no denying that the changing world of work adds barriers to the effective resolution of these sensitive situations.
Remote and hybrid working makes it practically harder to spot relationship breakdowns early.
The proliferation of multiple communication platforms means co-worker disputes can escalate quickly whilst remaining invisible to bosses. There is no silver bullet solution, but proactive and effective management remains the most effective weapon in your armoury.
Kelly Thomson is a partner in the employment, engagement and equality team at international law firm RPC