Can employers dismiss a member of staff because of a ‘difficult personality’?

08 Apr 2011

In the case of Ezsias v North Glamorgan NHS Trust, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decided that an employee who was dismissed because of a breakdown in relationships at work was dismissed for ‘some other substantial reason’ (SOSR), not misconduct.  As conduct was not the reason for dismissal, the EAT decided that the Tribunal had been entitled to find that the employer did not have to follow its contractual disciplinary procedures.


Where an employee’s difficult personality leads to a breakdown of relationships at work, it is possible to dismiss that person fairly for SOSR.


In this case, the EAT considered whether an Employment Tribunal was right to regard the employer’s reason for dismissing the employee to be for SOSR, not conduct.


Mr Ezsias was employed by an NHS Trust as a Consultant Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon.  He was dismissed following the irretrievable breakdown of relationships between him and others within his department after he had raised concerns over clinical standards (which the Trust knew to be an issue) in a blunt and antagonistic way. In particular, after he called into question the clinical competence of two of his colleagues, who felt this undermined their confidence.


As a result of these difficulties, the Trust established an inquiry panel, which concluded that Mr Ezsias’ complaints made it impossible to run a harmonious clinical department and that his complaints against his colleagues were “excessively frequent, unacceptably detailed and unrelenting to an extreme degree.”  The Trust commissioned a report from an independent psychologist and an HR consultant, which concluded that the working relationship was not retrievable.  Nine senior members of the department signed a petition expressing a breakdown in the relationship with Mr Ezsias.


As a result, the Trust wrote to Mr Ezsias indicating that it had no alternative but to terminate his employment on the basis of the fundamental and irretrievable breakdown of trust and confidence.


Mr Ezsias brought a claim for unfair dismissal, contending that the Trust had failed to follow the contractual disciplinary procedure, which it should have done because his dismissal was as a result of alleged misconduct. 


The Tribunal decided that the dismissal was a fair one.  It said that the Trust had been entitled to take the view that no formal disciplinary hearing was appropriate, given that the dismissal was for some other substantial reason.  It was also entitled to form the view that dismissal was the only option since Mr Ezsias “would never be satisfied with anything which the Trust had done or would do in future.”  Mr Ezsias appealed the decision but the EAT upheld the Tribunal’s decision.  It said that it was implicit in the Tribunal’s reasons that it regarded Mr Ezsias’ responsibility for the breakdown as incidental and therefore it was not a conduct dismissal.


The EAT commented in its decision that the Tribunal will always  be on the look out in these types of cases to see whether an employer is using the label SOSR to conceal the real reason for the employee’s dismissal. However, a true breakdown of relationships can amount to a fair SOSR dismissal.