One of the most bitter, expensive and protracted employment cases in New Zealand highlights how initially minor tensions can snowball.

Ms Snowden v Radio New Zealand case is, perhaps, the most stark example in recent times of extreme incompatibility in the workplace. But it started with some tensions in the relationship that were "not particularly serious" and deteriorated into one of the most acrimonious employment disputes to come before the New Zealand courts. Ms Snowden told the Employment Court that she had spent $3.5million in her claims against Radio New Zealand.

The bitter dispute and protracted litigation between Ms Snowden started in late 2002 and lasted nearly 12 years. The Employment Court finally heard the claims and issued a decision in April 2014. One of Ms Snowden's claims against Radio New Zealand is that she had been unjustifiably dismissed in 2005. The Employment Court heard extensive evidence about the way in which the employment relationship between Ms Snowden and her CEO deteriorated progressively in 2002 over a dispute about financing and budgeting for the News Division led by Ms Snowden. Radio New Zealand was increasingly concerned with what appeared to be Ms Snowden's ineffective financial management of her division, mainly by overspending on staff costs. For her part, Ms Snowden alleged that the financial difficulties in her division were not her fault, but the result of deliberate underfunding of the News Division by Radio New Zealand. Disciplinary allegations were raised by Radio New Zealand against Ms Snowden in late December 2002. Ms Snowden went on sick leave in January 2003 and never returned to work.

Radio New Zealand took a number of steps to try and address Ms Snowden's concerns including commissioning Deloitte to carry out a review of the newsrooms, providing assistance from the Finance Division to Ms Snowden to help her identify and address the budgeting issues and attending mediation five times between 2002 and 2005. During this time, Ms Snowden continued to make increasingly serious allegations of financial mismanagement against Radio New Zealand and its senior managers and raised various legal claims for, among other things, defamation and unjustified disadvantage. A new CEO at Radio New Zealand attempted to meet with Ms Snowden in 2004 to try and address the issues in the employment relationship but she refused. Despite this, Ms Snowden maintained that, from her perspective, the employment relationship was not irretrievably broken. Radio New Zealand disagreed and dismissed Ms Snowden in 2005.

The Employment Court agreed with Radio New Zealand, concluding that Ms Snowden was justifiably dismissed.

The case is an extreme example of incompatibility in the workplace.

The case confirms that, from a legal perspective, the onus is firmly on the employer in incompatibility cases to show that:

  • It had come to the reasonable conclusion that the relationship was irreconcilable,
  • This was wholly or primarily attributable to the employee who was dismissed and
  • A fair process was followed.

If the seriousness of incompatibility was primarily the fault of the employer, for example, because the employer was harassing the employee or ignoring complaints made about an issue, then a dismissal would be very difficult to justify.

Employers should first take steps to see if the issue can be resolved. These could include discussion between the parties facilitated by an impartial senior manager, or a mediator from the Department of Labour, to see if the parties involved can come to a workable agreement.

Another option is to use an external specialist consultant, such as an organisational psychologist, to work with your staff members - individually and together - to try and get to the bottom of why the incompatibility has occurred and see if there is any prospect of it being overcome.

Sometimes, it is possible to separate employees who simply do not get along to minimise disharmony in the workplace, but this should normally only be done with the consent of the employees involved.

If faced with a potential issue of a personality conflict in the workplace, swift action is necessary. The earlier the issue is addressed, the more likely it is that it can be overcome. Personality conflicts which are left to fester often deteriorate and ultimately result in irreconcilable differences requiring a carefully handled process.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.