Workplace Culture Part 3 – Why it pays to get it right

Posted by Luke Mitchell on 20 August 2015

In a recent Federal Circuit Court case, the issue of cultural fit within an organisation was highlighted. In this case, the termination of an employee landed the employer in court with an Adverse Action claim brought against the employer by the employee. That action sought $100,000.00 in damages.

In bringing a claim of Adverse Action, amongst some twenty points, the Applicant claimed that the employer had treated her adversely as they had:-

  • Required her answer to colleagues other than the CEO;
  • Required her to work on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays;
  • Failed to offer full-time employment;
  • Caused physical injury by way of work related stress; and
  • Dismissed her because she had taken sick leave.

The employer’s position was that a review of the interaction between Applicant and other staff members, showed that the Applicant had not been a good cultural fit within the organisation. They had decided that on balance, continuing the Applicant’s employment was at odds with the goals, aims and culture of their workplace. The employer had, prior to the termination, met with the Applicant (within the probationary period) with the purpose of terminating the position. However, as a result of that discussion, the Applicant was not in fact terminated but given a second chance to prove herself with a review to be undertaken two weeks later. Unfortunately, the relationship between the employer and Applicant never recovered. The employer was particularly conscious of the working environment for all staff and was very worried that the Applicant had seriously disturbed the culture which had existed within the workplace as so ultimately they terminated the Applicant’s employment.

Whilst the qualifications and experience of the Applicant tended to indicate that they would have been the perfect candidate for the role, it ended up being a case where there was more to performance of the role than technical competence. In this instance cultural fit was just as important.

The Applicant had been employed to undertake a role she possessed the skills to carry out. However, her perception of her role, her level of authority within the company and her daily dealings with other staff members, put her at odds with the values and culture otherwise upheld by the employer who had fostered a “no-blame culture” and had a core focus on their staff working as a team.

The case highlights the difficulties involved with employing staff and matching the existing culture of a workplace to the existing culture, beliefs and expectations of incoming staff. In this case Judge Lucev found the employer to be tolerant, flexible and understanding when it came to accommodating the needs of employees when personal issues arose.

Further, the case highlights the ripple effect across all staff members when a new person joins a team and the culture and expectations of the two parties do not align. Author Sean Howe claims “it’s not just the accumulation of complementary abilities that makes the group succeed, it’s the ways in which each individual is challenged and transformed by the very environment of diversity”.

In this case, the set of skills, abilities and experiences that the Applicant brought to the role was not enough to overcome the differences in mindset, personal interactions and culture. In summing up, Judge Lucev concluded that the dismissal came down solely to the Applicant’s own conduct and behaviour in dealing with fellow work colleagues and dismissed the application, rejecting the Applicant’s claims of being treated adversely.

The case highlights that setting, developing and maintaining a positive workplace culture is a challenging yet rewarding exercise for all workplaces. So long as it is handled in a transparent, procedurally fair and forthright manner protecting your workplace culture can be a valid ground for dismissing an employee who is damaging a positive workplace culture.

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