Some people have one, some don’t. No, it’s not a riddle for a shadow, it’s a phenomenon known as the ‘work nemesis‘.

Some people reading this blog will know exactly what I’m on about and some won’t have the first idea.  That’s fairly usual, as the existence of this phenomenon largely depends on where you work and who you work with.  Just to clarify, however, a ‘work nemesis’ is an individual who you simply can’t gel with (or, to just more direct terminology, a people who you can’t stand and/or dislike and/or are insanely competitive with).

You know in life sometimes you meet someone and, however hard you try, you just can’t find a way to like them or enjoy spending time with them?  That’s what we’re on about here.  It’s the person who blanks you in the kitchen but immediately strikes up a glowing conversation with the next person who walks in, the person who (in your eyes) sends horrifically rude emails or the person who, out of nowhere, takes sole credit for your idea in a meeting.

Why is this relevant?  Well, naturally, taken too far, relationships between two warring individuals can affect their performance and that of the surrounding team.  So let’s explore a hypothetical scenario and see how it plays out in terms of employment law.

Our place of work is a small café and, within that café, Tom and Jerry work on the same shift.  From day one, they’ve taken a bit of a dislike to each other but managed to keep things amicable and avoid confrontation.  However, one day, Tom falls out with Jerry because of a dispute over using each other’s mugs in the kitchen. From that stage, they refuse to talk to each other and the morale of the rest of the team working those shifts suffers massively as, without the two colleagues talking, it is impossible to get all the required tasks done.

Well, as it turns out, this isn’t the most hypothetical scenario and a similar scenario happened within an actual Employment Tribunal case.  In that case, the situation got so extreme that the employer was forced to initiate disciplinary action against both individuals.

One employee’s behaviour improved after the disciplinary meeting (let’s call that employee Tom) and Tom told his employer that he would speak to Jerry in the future.  Unfortunately, ‘Jerry’ would only tell his employer that he would ‘think about it’ when invited to talk to Tom and continued to refuse to speak to him.

Due to Jerry’s continuing refusal to speak with Tom (who was now willing to speak with Jerry and make his peace) in relation to work-related tasks, alongside the terrible atmosphere in the workplace caused by this, Jerry was dismissed.  Albeit, it is important to note that the relevant Tribunal also took into account the fact that the employer had also became aware of a number of aggressive text messages (containing foul and abusive language) sent to Tom by Jerry .

On the facts, the Tribunal held that the employer’s reasoning for dismissing Jerry was fair and rejected Jerry’s argument that it was unfair to only sack him (and not to sack Tom also).  Naturally, this was due to Tom’s genuine change in attitude (which were backed up by his actions) following his disciplinary meeting with the employer.

Obviously, it is important to consider the working environment in any case of employee conflict because, within a small café, there is nowhere for warring staff members to avoid each other, whereas within a multi-floor building, it may be possible for one staff member to transfer to a different team and/or location as a compromise.  In addition, the Tribunal took into account that, due to the importance of customer service and the nature of the small workplace, a colleague refusing to speak to another would have an increased impact on staff morale and customer retention.

Overall, employers don’t comb their staff lists to identify everyone’s work nemesis and, indeed, will most likely appreciate that some people simply don’t gel.  However, if that friction starts manifesting itself into ongoing and noticeable disagreement or conflict, an employer is likely to get involved and, usually, seek to identify the innocent party from the true work nemesis!