Maintaining happy and healthy workplace relationships may not be something that immediately springs to mind when considering your obligations as an employer. The recent case of Johnston v Board of Trustees of Southern Regional Health School, however, makes clear that allowing workplace disputes to remain unresolved may result in a successful claim for unjustified disadvantage.

What happened in that case?

Ms Johnston began working at the Southern Regional Health School as an Assistant Principal, and was promoted to Deputy Principal shortly thereafter. Some years later a desire to spend more time with her family led to a renegotiation of her employment contract. She reverted to Assistant Principal, reduced her hours and was permitted to work those hours flexibly and sometimes from home.

About a year later, Ms Atchison (Ms Johnston’s colleague) voiced dissatisfaction to the Deputy Principal. Ms Atchison felt that Ms Johnston was unreliable, dishonest and “had a lack of clarity around working responsibilities”. It seems that Ms Johnston was seen as “shirking”. Ms Atchison’s unhappiness increased, and eventually resulted in a written complaint to the employer.

The School did not deal with that complaint, but instead incorporated it into another investigation involving a different staff member before it was “put on hold”.

Over the coming months Ms Atchison’s dissatisfaction continued, and she made another written complaint about Ms Johnston. This time the complaint was investigated by the School, but unfortunately not resolved.

The Employment Relations Authority found that the School had unjustifiably disadvantaged Ms Johnston.

How was the employer at fault?

The Authority recorded that the “relationship [between Ms Johnston and Ms Atchison] was destroyed, the workplace dysfunctional and the animosity evident”. This need not have been. If the School had dealt with the initial complaint Ms Atchison would have been aware that Ms Johnston was working in accordance with her renegotiated terms of employment, and that her absences and hours were not reflective of “shirking”.

Furthermore, in not advising Ms Johnston of the complaint the School allowed the situation to “fester and deteriorate”. This was a failure by the School to comply with its obligations under section 4 (relating to obligations of good faith) of the Employment Relations Act.

What do you need to be aware of?

The Authority stated that:

An employer is under a duty to be constructive in maintaining a productive relationship. That must include addressing possible impediments to, and negative influences on, the relationship.

There are two morals to this story:

  • Nip workplace friction in the bud before it becomes a real issue, and
  • Following a proper process in doing so will save your business time and money.