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Lynne Curry: Dueling employees dictate mediation, disclipine or firing

Lynne Curry
Clark James Mishler

Q. Two of my employees hate each other. One has worked for me for three years and is a hard worker though incredibly opinionated. We tangled early on, but when I let her know she couldn't disrespect me, she learned to zip her lip and we did OK.

The other employee started here 10 months ago. Although she knows her job, she talks endlessly about how her past employer was better in terms of equipment, schedules, flexibility, support staff, you name it. Once I asked, "So why'd you quit there?" I got a dirty look in response.

Whenever these two interact, they fight. As a result, I keep them separated and generally give them different work shifts even though this makes scheduling harder.

I thought this arrangement would work. Today, however, the newer employee said she felt the other employee was trying to "run her off" and she didn't like the shifts she was assigned. I said I was trying to assign the more desired shifts fairly but it was complicated because I had to keep the two of them separated.

She said it wasn't fair she got disadvantaged just because of "that cow." Then she handed me a letter saying she was working in a hostile environment, had repeatedly reported the situation to me as a supervisor and I hadn't acted to fix it.

When I said, "I know you two don't get along, but 'hostile?' " she said the other employee mocks her, calling her bipolar and manic-depressive. I said, "Well you call her passive-aggressive" and she answered, "Well, she is," and walked out.

I don't see a good way out. Although these two employees seem equally at fault for squabbling, this seems an unresolvable personality conflict. As this employee has been with me a shorter time, I'm wondering if I can just "employment at will" fire her.

A. In Alaska, you can fire an employee "at will" -- for any reason or no reason -- as long as you don't violate public policy. Your employee threw a wild card on the table, however, when she wrote "hostile environment" and linked it to her co-worker's "bipolar" and "manic-depressive" remarks. Although this co-worker may be neither of these, an employee occasionally qualifies as "disabled" under the Americans with Disabilities Act as Amended if others in the workplace regard the employee as disabled.

Thus, while your two employees appear to simply dislike each other, you can only fire her safely if you've investigated her hostile environment claim.

You can initiate an investigation by finding out what she means by "hostile environment" and what she thinks you should do about it. In past interviews, she's responded by giving you a dirty look or saying, "Well, she is" and walking out. If she wants to make a real claim, she needs to substantiate it. If she refuses to talk with you, you can ask a different individual to interview her. If she still refuses to say anything, document that; it undercuts her claim.

Then interview the other employee. Ask her as well, "What will fix this?" You may also want to interview other individuals who work with either or both employees. Although some supervisors hesitate to interview co-workers, they often have valuable insights that help you learn the full scope of the problem and figure how to solve it.

If both dueling employees say "get rid of the other," it substantiates your need to act. Also, if your employee actually qualifies as disabled, you're required to reasonably accommodate her. If her only answer to fixing the situation is "fire the employee I consider a cow," her requested accommodation doesn't qualify as reasonable.

Finally, both employees have downsides. Although you've convinced your opinionated employee to "zip her lip" with you, does she give unacceptable guff to others? As for your dirty-looking, complaining, name-calling employee -- if she does that with you, what does she do with others?

You need to fix this situation. It may require mediation, discipline or even termination of one or both employees.

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management-employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Co. Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com. You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10 or through www.workplacecoachblog.com.


Lynne Curry
THE WORKPLACE