This past weekend Jonathan Papelbon, the talented and unpredictable closer for the Washington Nationals, had a heated discussion with MVP-candidate Bryce Harper about Harper’s failure to run hard after hitting a fly ball. The heated discussion quickly turned physical, when Papelbon grabbed Harper around the neck and pushed him up against the dugout wall. Papelbon and Harper were then separated by their teammates. In response, the Nationals have suspended Papelbon for four games.
As a life-long Phillies fan, I take some degree of warped pleasure in seeing how Papelbon, a Phillie until two months ago, has apparently unsettled the Nationals. The Nationals were one game ahead of the Mets at the time of the trade and are now nine games behind the Mets and have been eliminated from playoff contention. My twisted interest aside, this incident does raise the issue of how an employer should deal with conflict and fights at work. Importantly, this is conflict that does not rise to the level of unlawful discrimination or harassment.
No workplace is utopian. We are all human, so if you employ more than just yourself, the ingredients are present for conflict, and if allowed to simmer, fights. The conflicts can range from high-school style “clique” drama, to manufactured power-play disputes, to professional disputes. Many of these conflicts cannot be avoided, but what an employer can do is address and manage the conflict so it does not disrupt workplace harmony, or simmer into a physical altercation, both of which are bad for the employees involved, bad for morale and could lead to potential legal liability.
Although inevitable, there are some things employers can do to manage workplace conflict.
Accept Conflict and Manage It
As stated above, conflict happens in the workplace, whether it be conflict derived from “drama” or whether it is serious decision-based conflict. In either case, the employer cannot take the position that conflict “cannot happen in my workplace.” The employer must not dismiss out-of-hand the position of one employee over another. Listening, not just hearing, is key to managing conflict. Moreover, the employee and employer must understand that the goal is not circling around the campfire signing kumbaya. One does not have to like who you work with, but you have to function in the workplace in a respectful manner. The key for the employer is to manage the conflict so the parties can move forward in a respectful manner.
Look for Personality Conflicts
Oil and water. It happens. Sometimes you have two good employees who work hard and there is something that just does not work between them. It could be present from the first interaction, or it could develop later. If those individuals with the conflict cannot recognize and accept those conflicts between them, which would allow them to move forward in a respectful manner, the management of the conflict may well include the separation of the two individuals. Personality conflicts, as opposed to “workplace drama” or professional conflict, can quickly and seriously infect the morale of a workplace.
Open Door Policy/Communication
Your employee handbook should contain, and management should make clear, that an open door policy exists, and that employees should feel comfortable raising and discussing the conflict in hopes of resolving the matter.
Don’t Be Afraid to Discipline or Terminate
If the conflict is continuous, or if the conflict extends beyond verbal disagreement, the employer must not be hesitant to take disciplinary action, including termination if the circumstances require it.
Most employers have, and I would recommend, a zero tolerance policy with respect to physical fighting, or threats of bodily harm. For instance, if an employee punches or threatens physical harm with an instrument (e.g., knife, gun, etc…) the employer should contact the police and the employee should be terminated.
If the employer fails to take disciplinary action regarding an employee with a propensity for intense conflict and violence, the employer may be liable for negligent supervision and other torts. In short, in the real world of everyday employment, Papelbon would have been terminated, not just suspended for four games.
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The information above is general: we recommend that you consult an attorney regarding your specific circumstances. The content of this information is not meant to be considered as legal advice or a substitute for legal representation.