MT Expert: When elite professionals become the stuff of HR nightmares

What happens when an exceptional employee breaks the company code of conduct? Employment lawyer Stephen Robinson explains how to keep your star without crippling your business.

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Last Updated: 31 May 2013

Dealing with an employee who bites a competitor is not an everyday workplace problem. It’s equally uncommon for your star performer to launch a tirade of abuse at a co-worker which ends up on YouTube, racking up 2.9 million hits and counting.

Management professionals the world over can probably rest easy in this fact: the sort of HR problems posed by Luis Suarez, the Liverpool FC footballer who recently wrapped his jaws around an opponent, or Christian Bale, the actor whose temper tantrum on the set of the last Terminator movie has become legendary, are not likely to be on the agenda of the next board meeting.

That said, the question of how far employers can and should go in managing exceptionally talented individuals whose behaviour doesn’t always conform to the norm is a serious one.

Sport throws up more obvious examples than most – perhaps because individuals at the elite level possess the much talked about but fictitious genius/madness gene.

We remember the Manchester United footballer, Eric Cantona, who violently assaulted a baying spectator and was severely disciplined by his club and football’s governing body. However, his employers chose to embrace the Frenchman’s idiosyncrasies because he was rather good at his job and was important not just to the future success of his team but also to his club’s wider business interests.

In the theatre, film and music management, teams are perceived to be far more relaxed about the extreme behaviour. It is simply more accepted in that environment. There are obvious exceptions that cross the line into criminality – notably the Bolshoi acid attack in January this year. A leading dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet has since confessed to ordering an acid-throwing attack on the artistic director of the troupe, exposing a bitter backstage clash at one of the world’s greatest theatres.

Sergei Filin was left with severely damaged eyes and chemical burns after sulphuric acid was thrown in his face.  There was speculation that the attack was arranged in revenge for Mr Filin allegedly denying major roles to Mr Dmitrichenko’s girlfriend, Anzhelina Vorontsova, a 21-year-old ballerina at the Bolshoi Theatre.

On a day-to-day basis, however, a film director or actor can get away with behaviour that would result in legal action elsewhere. That’s partly because of the context – the creation of art on a film set - but also because the underlying convention is that basic concepts of employment law don’t really apply in the arts. Of course this is complete nonsense. They do apply; they just aren’t actually applied. The standard of behaviour expected in the workplace is the same for the on-set caterer performer as well as the superstar talent.

City of London firms were once dominated by a macho culture where behaviour could all too easily get out of hand. Traders have long since discovered the high cost of failing to operate in an equitable working environment.  A string of cases lifted the lid on a culture of sex, drink and racism in the City – and resulted in costly legal actions, compensation payments and settlements.

Managing staff effectively is clearly essential to maximising individual, team and organisational effectiveness. That process can and does require developing an understanding of difficult behaviour in employees and the affect it can have in the workplace.

Psychometric testing and good old fashioned management experience can be a great help in growing awareness and understanding of difficult personality types. But there are also HR specialists and coaches who can help devise effective strategies to deal with people. That’s partly about defining and developing appropriate boundaries at all levels. But companies also need organisational consistency when it comes to dealing with difficult behaviours. It’s also important to understand the personal make up of a team and the positives and negatives of individual personality types.

The laws covering discrimination, misconduct and discipline are just as likely to govern the actions of a footballer, a banker, a film director or a bar tender. Yet in the real world and in many high profile cases, the law of the land is not always followed logically.

If it was, the footballer Luis Suarez would likely have been dismissed by his club for gross misconduct. The fact that he wasn’t obligates his employers to proactively ensure incidents of serious misconduct do not happen again.

In the Suarez’ case, high profile armchair psychiatrists have expressed opinions that this man may have a mental health problem to do with managing his anger. His eccentric behaviour puts his employer on notice legally that they need to delve a little deeper into the reasons behind his actions and if necessary help in the most appropriate way. If they fail to act, they are possibly as culpable as him.

Of course for the majority of us working in offices and factories, far from the glamour of the entertainment industry, employment law may seem to be taken more seriously. In fact, the reality is that most businesses will naturally turn a blind eye to the indiscretions of the most talented, successful or valuable employees.

Whilst incidents can be shrugged off as exceptions to the rule, there are other looming dangers. An employer could be severely criticised if different sanctions were imposed for identical crimes. Furthermore, if an employee can evidence unequal treatment due to say gender, race or nationality, there could be a discrimination claim.

So, if an employee is sanctioned for an act of misconduct, the employer (and indeed any association of which he is a member) must ensure equal and consistent treatment. Or face the consequences.

Stephen Robinson is a specialist in employment law and at partner at Laytons Solicitors

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