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Can Co-Workers Get Fired for a Verbal Fight in the Workplace?

Workplace conflict is inevitable given diverse work styles, cultures and generations in the workforce. However, verbal confrontations and fighting in the workplace are never acceptable. One reason organizations have conflict resolution and alternative methods to settle workplace disputes in place is to prevent disagreements from escalating to the point of verbal fighting. Co-workers who disagree so vehemently that they resort to verbal fighting might face severe consequences. Employer Rights Verbal fighting can be viewed very subjectively. What one manager thinks is fighting may be considered a mere disagreement by an employee with HR expertise. In every state but Montana, private sector employers generally follow the employment-at-will doctrine. The employment-at-will doctrine means an employer has the right to terminate an employee at any time, with or without notice, for any reason or for no reason, provided the employer's rationale isn't based on discriminatory reasons. What this means for employees who get into verbal fights with co-workers is that the employer -- in almost all cases -- can indeed fire co-workers for verbal fighting.

Job-Related Disagreement Co-workers have different ways of approaching their work duties, and as such, they may clash just because one employee prefers a process that another employee doesn't. When a disagreement becomes an argument between two co-workers, it's probably not a matter for which they should be fired. Their disagreement may be no more than a heated debate about the work process or method that lends itself to better results or productivity. Even disagreements over work processes that could have a significant impact on results or productivity aren't necessarily firing offenses; however, they should be addressed as soon as possible to prevent future disagreements about the same topic. Direct Harassment When co-workers violate the company's nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies by verbal sparring, the HR department should address the matter immediately. Arguments that cross the line into discrimination and harassment are offensive to other employees and directly contradict the company policy of providing a workplace where all employees feel safe from threat or humiliation. Depending on the company's policy, co-workers could receive a written disciplinary warning, suspension with a requirement to complete mandatory sensitivity training, or even termination. Firing an employee who engages in a verbal fight classified as harassment or discrimination is a severe action, particularly if the employee isn't aware of the company policy and has never participated in diversity training or hasn't been exposed to a diverse population.

Outright Threats Employers take workplace violence very seriously, and many companies consider threatening language, behavior and actions reasons for immediate termination. A manager should act quickly to defuse heated arguments, threats and verbal fights that can escalate into workplace violence -- alternately, an HR or security department must quickly intervene the stop the incident. Unless HR is a witness to the argument, an HR staff member generally conducts an investigation to support any decision to fire co-workers who engage in this level of verbal fighting.

Subordinate-Manager Conflict The very nature of the subordinate-to-manager relationship suggests that verbal fighting between a member of management and her direct report is never acceptable. Some companies take a hard-line approach to situations where arguing occurs between leadership and staffers. However, it's unwise for HR to recommend immediate termination for the staff member without first examining whether the manager or employee is the aggressor. Termination might be justified; the call shouldn't be made based on position alone.

Preventing Conflict Prevention is key for employers to meet their obligation to provide a safe working environment. Providing a safe workplace entails promoting acceptance of diversity in thought, practice and work habits. In addition to proactive measures, employers must be reactive when employees engage in unacceptable behavior. Swift response to verbal fighting and other signs of disrespectful behavior is critical for employers. Equally important is HR's attention to conditions that underlie workplace conflict, such as stress, ineffective leadership, low morale and overall job dissatisfaction.



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