Costly conflict | How a breakdown between a worker and her boss ended with a £250k payout

How a breakdown between a worker and her boss ended with a £250k payout

A worker has been awarded a quarter of a million pounds after a row with her boss over a PTO request caused their relationship to crumble.

HMRC worker Elaine Worsley fell out with boss Linda Marrison after she rejected her request to take four days off over the Christmas and New Year period so she could go on holiday, an employment tribunal in Manchester was told.

This ignited a chain of events which caused the relationship between Worsley and Marrison - which had once been strong - to fall apart, eventually resulting in Worsley going on sick leave with anxiety. Worsley even reported feeling “suicidal” as a result of Marrison’s actions, before she was sacked due to her lengthy absence.

The employment panel heard how Worsley felt it unfair that her request for time off was turned down, as she “never” took time off in summer and was “owed a substantial amount of holiday”.

According to the tribunal, the pair held a meeting which was attended by a colleague, who said she “firmly believed” the row over the holiday request sparked the pair’s relationship break down.

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Worsley submitted a nine-page document alongside a letter from her GP describing her depression, “detailing allegations of bullying by Ms Marrison”.

Following this, Marrison banned her from working overtime “with immediate effect” to “help you to maintain a more healthy work/life balance”.

Worsley then went off sick for several months, reporting she felt “extremely unwell”, suicidal and “isolated” from her colleagues. She later wrote to HMRC stating that she could return to work as long as she was not working with Marrison.

However, Worsley was sacked weeks later after HMRC concluded there was “no prospect of you returning to work within a reasonable time”.

Her appeal against the decision was dismissed, and she took HMRC to an employment tribunal. Employment Judge Anthony Ross said Marrison had “lacked sensitivity” and “did not seem to be aware of the guidance about possible signs of depression and mental health”.

He went on: “Ms Worsley had an extraordinary length of service, of over 40 years. She was absent from work for a relatively short period of time on sick leave of less than 3 months when the decision to dismiss was taken.

“We find a reasonable employer of this size and undertaking in the above particular circumstances would not have dismissed her.”

She was awarded £243,957.28 in compensation, in addition to £20,000 for injury to feelings and £25,000 for personal injury.

The cost of workplace conflict

This case, and its hefty payout, has highlighted the major consequences that can arise from a breakdown between employees and their superiors. But while £250,000 compensation is costly to one individual workplace, the cost to UK businesses as a whole in eye watering.

According to a recent report from ACAS (based partially on survey data provided by CIPD), the total cost of conflict to UK organisations in 2021 was £28.5 billion – the equivalent of more than £1,000 for each employee.

From the report: “Close to 10 million people experienced conflict at work. Of these, over half suffer stress, anxiety or depression as a result; just under 900,000 took time off work; nearly half a million resigned, and more than 300,000 employees were dismissed.”

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Aside from the worst-case scenario of labour tribunals, however, simple conflicts can escalate or even build over time into soured relationships, workplace grudges and all can lead to a lack of teamwork – which is not only costly, but something that can create an overall toxic environment.

In any organisation, no matter how small or large, there are bound to be conflicts – and being able to resolve conflicts well and move on is the hallmark of a healthy organisation.

But what happens when two people collide? After the dust settles, how do you move on? How do you use these as opportunities for growth and understanding?

Avoidance is the best route

As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – a diplomatic approach to interacting with senior and junior colleagues will prevent most HR disputes and keep from landing you in hot water.

Aliza Reger, head of luxury bedroom brand Janet Reger, urges people to think before they speak and to always stay alert to diplomacy and workplace-appropriate conversation.

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“It’s important to remember that work colleagues can come from a widely different ages, backgrounds and sensitivities,” she says. “The rule of thumb is to apologise immediately if you can see you have caused offence – but also, remember to engage your brain before your mouth! Think before you speak and anything remotely off-colour, suggestive, provocative or political is best avoided at work – the old-fashioned rule for dinner conversation is always a good fall-back rule: never discuss money, sex or politics. Avoid personal remarks and don’t give an opinion [on someone’s personal attributes or life] unless asked.”

While there is plenty of space at the office for warmth, friendliness and even joking around, it’s important to remember that we all have different values, backgrounds and past trauma. What might be “no big deal” to you can be really important to someone else. That doesn’t make them weak or humourless, just different – and as we learned as children, different is OK!

If you can avoid workplace awkwardness or clashes before they happen, you can keep relationships with colleagues positive.

What to do if you’re the offender

Harvard University’s blog features an entire dispute resolution section, divided into dozens of sub-sections, all of which feature variations on the themes of empathy/sympathy, objectivity and de-escalation.

“Dispute resolution strategies include fostering a rapport, considering interests and values separately, appealing to overarching values, and indirect confrontation.”

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But the best advice, from international negotiators to parents, is the same: listen, try to be objective and stay humble.

“First and foremost,” says Stanhope, “Listen to what they have to say. Ask them open questions to get them talking about why they might have been offended at the time. If they want to complain about you, take it on the chin and let them get it out. Resist trying to justify yourself.”

Martin’s advice is similar: “It is important that any conversation happens when you are both calm and feel safe. When you are both ready, offer an apology. In some cases, a simple and genuine apology is all that is needed. For example, “I am sorry I said X. It was wrong and I regret hurting you.”

“If the situation is more serious or has been ongoing, it may require more resolution. For example, you might want to explain why you said or did what you did, to demonstrate that you understand why they are so offended and make a commitment not to do the same again.”

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Comments (1)

  • Sara-Louise
    Fri, 21 Oct 2022 12:22pm BST
    I can't help thinking that part of the problem in many workplaces at the moment is the phrase 'between employees and their superiors'. Seniors: the word you are looking for is 'seniors', as they are in a senior position. Implying that, because someone has a managerial role, they are somehow superior to the staff in their team reinforces the impression (that sadly a few managers have) that they are entitled to treat people however they wish because they are 'inferior'.

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