Failure to manage a poorly performing employee proves a bitter pill to swallow
Failing to deal properly with a poorly performing employee can prove costly, as the recent case of Mrs M Williams v Meddygfa Rhydbach Surgery & Others highlights.
Mrs Williams had worked at the surgery for nearly 30 years. She started as a receptionist and was promoted to practice manager. The doctors who made up the partnership of the practice had changed over time, and the new partners felt that Mrs Williams had been promoted beyond her ability by the previous partners.
There were issues with Mrs Williams’ work, including over-paying the caretaker £12,000. Although the money was recovered, it undermined the partners’ confidence in her. The partners’ view was that Mrs Williams was performing at the level of a receptionist and not taking managerial responsibility.
Concerns about her performance had been raised informally and repeatedly over the years, but no formal performance management or disciplinary steps had been taken, and she went some years without having an appraisal.
Mrs Williams had a particularly difficult working relationship with Dr Smits, who would question, challenge and shout at her. Other colleagues had made complaints about Dr Smits’ behaviour in the past.
The working relationship deteriorated, including at a meeting between Mrs Williams and the partners, during which Dr Smits raised his voice and banged his hand against a door in frustration.
Mrs Williams submitted a formal written grievance to the partners accusing Dr Smits of bullying and harassment. The partners instructed external consultants to deal with Mrs Williams’ grievance, and with her subsequent grievance appeal. Both the grievance and the appeal were rejected. Mrs Williams resigned and claimed constructive unfair dismissal, claiming that the rejection of her grievance appeal was the “final straw”.
The Employment Tribunal acknowledged that Mrs William’s performance could have been better, but found that she had been mismanaged and bullied. They noted that “she was not given a fair chance to improve free from oppression and uncorroborated suspicion of misconduct.” Her claim of constructive unfair dismissal was upheld.
The Tribunal noted the partners’ “laissez-faire” management of Mrs Williams had failed to address the concerns with her performance. They could have used their written policies to manage her, and had sufficient time to do so, but chose not to. In order for them to have dismissed her fairly for performance, they would have to have taken more formal performance management steps, and although they had suspicions of her misconduct, they had not investigated these at all.
The grievance process was found by the Tribunal to be flawed, and the partners were just "going through the motions as far as the grievance procedure was concerned". The Tribunal concluded that the external consultants had been unfairly influenced by the partners, and criticised them for not considering the historical complaints by staff about Dr Smits, which provided relevant background.
The Tribunal went on to consider whether Mrs Williams’ compensation should be reduced to reflect the chance that she would have been fairly dismissed (for example, for poor performance or misconduct), however the Tribunal found that the partners could not be trusted to act fairly and reasonably in any procedures.
Whilst this case is only at Tribunal level, and therefore not binding, it is a helpful reminder of the importance of dealing with issues promptly and fairly, and in accordance with established policies and procedures. It can be tempting to put off dealing with poorly performing employees, or with employee grievances, but leaving problems unmanaged could give an employee grounds for a claim.
If you would like to talk through a situation you are dealing with, or if you need advice on any aspect of employment law, please contact any member of the Pure Employment Law team (01243 836840 or firstname.lastname@example.org).