Incompatibility in the workplace

Unity in the workplace is one of the many requirements that are essential to maintaining a successful business. Employees of a business are considered to be a team that should work together to achieve the business’s goals and overcome challenges. This implies that employees should get along with each other at least to such an extent that the employer’s operations are not negatively affected by conflict between employees and/or with the employer’s customers.

A diverse environment

The workplace is a very diverse environment in terms of culture, religion, beliefs, values, political views, frames of reference, work ethics, opinions, communication skills etc.  Not everyone will always get along and the potential for conflict and disagreement in the workplace is always a risk. In extreme cases, these conflicts and clashes can lead to incompatibility.


Incompatibility in the context of the workplace and labour law is not defined by the Labour Relations Act or any other South African legislation. It is therefore a difficult concept to define with certainty. Incompatibility can be due to, among other things, an employee’s attitude, temperament, unique way of working, temper, impatience, interference, manipulation, lack of communication skills, as well as the employee’s behaviour in general that interferes with the effectiveness of the employer’s operations.

Case law

As incompatibility is not defined by legislation it is necessary to look to case law for guidance when dealing with cases of incompatibility. According to case law, an employer is entitled to insist on a working environment that is peaceful. It is an implied condition of an employee’s employment contract that the employee will not conduct himself or herself in a way that could lead to disagreement and conflict in the workplace.


However, the reality is that, just as in the case of any other relationship, the possibility exists that the relationship between the employer and employee or between a specific employee and fellow employees, conflict may arise in the form of incompatibility.


The concept of incompatibility can be seen as a form of incompetence: the employee does not fit in with the employer/business’s culture, or just does not get along with management, fellow employees or customers.



How should the employer deal with this?

A distinction must first be made between incompatibility and misconduct. Misconduct in the workplace is addressed by applying discipline, usually in the form of written warnings. Incompatibility cannot be addressed through disciplinary measures because the incompatibility is not necessarily intentional or attributable to misconduct.


When an employee’s behaviour leads to incompatibility, the employer must undertake a consultation and counselling process. It is extremely important to take into account that even though incompatibility is not specifically defined in the Labour Relations Act, the dismissal of an employee can ever only take place after a procedurally and substantively fair process was held.


The employee must therefore at all times be afforded the opportunity to state his/her side. The employer also has the obligation to make reasonable efforts to try to resolve or at least improve the incompatibility, and to offer the employee the opportunity to try to change or adapt. Sometimes incompatibility can be resolved by, for example, moving the employee to another department or offering the employee counselling.

Take note

Dismissal must always be considered as a last resort and will only be appropriate if there are no other reasonable alternatives available, and the relationship between the employer and employee, or between the employee and fellow employees, has broken down beyond repair.


It is essential to thoroughly document the process followed in trying to resolve incompatibility. This protects the employer in case the employee is dismissed after the process is concluded, in that the record of this process is available to prove that the dismissal was fair.

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