What to do when you suspect an employee is unsuited for the workplace

What to do when you suspect an employee is unsuited for the workplace

“Incompatibility arises when employees are unable to work harmoniously with their colleagues or are unable to adapt to the corporate culture of the workplace.” – John Grogan

Any employer would say that it is an employer’s prerogative to have his or her employees conduct themselves in a harmonious manner for the benefit of workplace efficiency. The expectation seems reasonable but there is seldom, if ever, such an ideal working environment where every single employee gets along.

The more employees in a workplace, the more apparent the inevitable personality clashes. An employer must, however, be careful not to mistake incompatibility for misconduct. An employee becomes incompatible with their colleagues, subordinates as well as superiors when they are unable to tolerate the general behaviour of the individual. This intolerance hinders the ability for co-operation in the work environment and ultimately leads to a breakdown in interpersonal relationships.

Employers should keep in mind that an employee can rarely be deemed to be incompatible following a single incident. When the presence of the allegedly incompatible employee causes constant tension in the workplace, to the extent that the employee is knocking heads with the majority of the staff force and clashing with the clients of the business, the best interests of the business call for the employer to implement measures to tackle the source of the conflict. Nonetheless, the employer cannot simply take radical steps when dealing with the so-called “problem employee”.

The employer should understand that personal opinion is not definitive proof that an employee is all-around unsuited for their position as well as the working environment they have been placed in. Cases have been lost as a result of dismissals based on subjective determinations of an employee’s incompatibility, as opposed to evidence of the irreconcilable differences between employer and employee.

Grogan suggests that there is a test one can apply in determining the substantive fairness of a dismissal for incompatibility. The first and easiest question is, did the employee’s conduct cause disharmony or tension in the workplace? From there, the employer will have to investigate whether the discord ultimately stems from the employee’s behaviour and the degree of disharmony caused as a result of that single individual. The employer holds the responsibility to address the employee directly with a view to remedying the employee’s unsuitability. This process is similar in some ways to addressing an employee’s poor work performance, however, the employee may not necessarily be under-performing in his or her job in order to be deemed incompatible.

The best course of action the employer can take is to offer the employee counselling, with the view to explain the nature of unsuitability, and thus afford the employee the opportunity to change. The employer ought to consider alternative positions for the employee in the workplace.

If this is not possible, the employer should only have reason to consider terminating an employee’s services if the employee has been given the opportunity to fix what damage has been done, yet has shown no willingness to revise their behaviour.


Meggan Watson is a SEESA Labour, Consumer Protection and POPI Legal Advisor at our Port Elizabeth office. Prior to joining SEESA in 2015, she completed her Articles of Clerkship in Bloemfontein.


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