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Workplace harmony is a legitimate expectation for employers

29 September 2015

A vitriolic relationship between Star Wars actors for the robots C-3PO and R2-D2 illustrates a problem that many employers have with staff falling out with each other.

Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker are the only two actors to have appeared in all existing Star Wars movies and they are also set to star in JJ Abraham's forthcoming Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens.

But there can be no doubt that 69 year-old British thespian Daniels (C-3PO) and Baker (R2-D2), 81, don't like each other.

Baker claimed in 2005 that Daniels was standoffish and would refuse to mix with the rest of the cast.  More recently, Baker stated, when asked whether he would attend a Star Wars cast reunion, that it depended "if you invite His Lordship, the one with the golden balls; if he comes I won't be there".

Earlier this year, Daniels helpfully stated of Baker: "He's not actually on set. I haven't seen him for years. His name is on the credits as a sort of… I don't know… a good luck charm. A courtesy. He's a talisman".

Despite the obvious dislike these two actors have for each other, they must have cooperated enough to have continued to please the director and film company, and get paid.

Often the difficulties caused by staff falling out with each other are likely to lead to a parting of the ways.

The case of Walker and ProCare Health helpfully sets out the journey and likely finishing point for problems of this sort.

ProCare was a primary health organisation providing general medical, psychology, psychiatric, nursing, and telephone nurse triage services in the Auckland area.  Ms Walker was employed by ProCare in 2005 as a management accountant but later promoted to financial controller.

A variety of incidents occurred which led to Walker having considerable conflict with other ProCare staff.

Problems began when ProCare introduced a new internal control system. The implementation of the systems was poorly executed by Walker, which led to tension from staff, who would in turn receive derogatory comments from Walker.

She claimed one employee was "just raising the same crap over and over again and it doesn't matter how many times it is all explained to him (not by me anyway)".

Issues with Walker's communication style also interfered with other matters such as the arrangement of work social activities, as well as an audit of ProCare, where Walker would at times just shut herself away and be available only to a limited number of people.

Walker's health suffered as the relationship broke down. She claimed she couldn't sleep at night and had migraines.

ProCare tried to address the divisions by appointing a manager of "people and culture".

This new manager found problems with Walker's communication style and behaviour.

Ultimately the company offered a doctor's appointment for Walker to get to the bottom of any health issues, and mediation between staff was arranged to resolve issues.

Then a review was arranged to better understand what was causing the tension within the office.

As a result of the review, a business analyst was appointed to reduce pressures for the accounting team, and for finance staff to report to another manager, not Walker.

She reacted antagonistically by claiming this was a demotion. At this stage ProCare felt they could not win with Walker. As a result of her complaints, they took steps to reduce her stress, only for her to complain about the steps they were taking.

They brought the lawyers in.

Formal steps were taken against Walker. They raised the need to address working relationship issues with Walker, who responded unhelpfully and rejected that there was an incompatibility problem.

ProCare dismissed Walker on the grounds of irreconcilable breakdown of trust and confidence. Irrespective of the justification Walker gave for her actions, the employer was looking for commitment to cooperate with management and colleagues. That was clearly not there.

The court held that the dismissal was justified. It observed that no organisation could withstand the level of disharmony ProCare was facing. Walker was substantially responsible for the irreconcilable breakdown. Walker was surrounded by conflict and failed to see her own part in it or appreciate the adverse effect her communication style was having on the company.

The employer had taken formal steps to address the issue but these failed, and the company was ultimately required to resort to a formal process. ProCare justifiably dismissed Walker.

Whilst the media moguls may be able to manage the significant disharmony between two lead actors in the Star Wars series, most people running a business would not accept it. The human cost and the drain caused by such behaviour simply will not be tolerated.

But real efforts must be made to address the issues in the sort of ways that ProCare Health attempted before an employer can reasonably decide that there is an irreconcilable breakdown of trust and confidence because of staff disharmony.

Many readers will recognise the septic environment created by internecine strife. It is best avoided by early intervention and a good workplace culture.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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