How to manage querulous employees

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We all complain from time to time; about the weather, our colleagues or feeling unappreciated at work. However, in some cases, complaining can be a psychiatric illness, which at the extreme end of the scale, is known as querulant paranoia.

According to Australian psychiatrists Paul Mullen and Grant Lester, querulous behaviour involves a “…totally disproportionate investment of time and resources in grievances that grow steadily from the mundane to the grandiose…” and is characterised by “…the unusually persistent pursuit of a personal grievance in a manner seriously damaging to the individual’s economic, social, and personal interests, and disruptive to the functioning of the courts and/or other agencies attempting to resolve the claims.”

According to the experts, querulants are four times as likely to be male than female, typically aged between 40 and 60 and their conduct has frequently been triggered by some major ego-shattering setback in life such as a dismissal from their employment or divorce. They often espouse that their conduct is in the public interest rather than their own, refuse to settle disputes even when what they originally asked for is offered and are convinced that copying in the Prime Minister and others in similarly high places, to their typically-voluminous correspondence, is justified.

Querulants seek vindication rather than resolution and require actions such as the dismissal of senior management to placate them. Mullen and Lester describe the querulant’s position as being “… like gamblers with no way out of the devastation they have wrought but through a really big win.”

Unsurprisingly, querulants often end up in the court system, where they are known as querulant litigants. Without presumptuously putting myself forward as qualified to diagnose such persons, a number of well-known New Zealand employment cases potentially  fit into this category.

The case of Snowdon v Radio New Zealand appears to be one likely contender. Lynne Snowdon, a Radio New Zealand journalist, unsuccessfully pursued her dismissal through the courts in a multi-million dollar, 12-year case that resulted in a $490,000 costs award against her. In an affidavit filed in an attempt to reduce the costs award, she deposed that as a result of her case, her liabilities exceeded her assets by $2.5 million, she had no income and was reduced to living in “temporary accommodation.”

Another case, recently described by Anne Aitken in Waikato Business News’ January 2018 edition, ALA v ITE (name suppression orders in place) potentially involves a querulant. ITE (the employee) worked for ALA (a local government organisation). The relationship deteriorated, and the parties entered into a settlement agreement, with a very detailed confidentiality clause prohibiting the employee from disclosing details of the issues.

ITE went on to create a website disclosing the issues, posted videos online and even sent flash drives disclosing the details of his complaints to chief executives of other local authorities, despite a number of hefty fines from the Employment Relations Authority and compliance orders, which ITE ignored.

Eventually, with unpaid fines and costs totalling $138,000, ALA declared him bankrupt, yet ITE continued with his online publishing. When given the opportunity to take down the offending material before sentencing in the Employment Court, ITE declined to confirm he would, resulting in an additional $48,000 in costs and a 21-day period of imprisonment. The material is still available online if you know where to look.

Most querulants were, before their crusade, gainfully employed, and the seeds of the querulous behaviour can become a serious problem for employers. So, what, if any steps, can be taken to manage this disruptive, resource-draining employee?

American psychologist and president of Work Trauma Services Inc, Dr Stephen White, sets out some potentially useful tips when dealing with querulants:

• Educate managers on the nature of querulous behaviour and avoid being disrespectful or demeaning to a querulant employee;

• Be scrupulous to detail as any factual error or procedural misstep will justify suspiciousness and fuel outrage;

• Offer viable, face-saving exits, bearing in mind they are unlikely to be deemed acceptable to the querulant if they do not include a public apology, a declaration of organisational wrongdoing, and financial amounts out of all proportion to their claims; and

• Take threats to themselves and others seriously, involving security and law enforcement if necessary (the latter may be particularly important in a country such as the US, with ubiquitous access to firearms).

From a New Zealand employment law perspective, I would also add that sometimes it is better to just dismiss such an employee, adhering of course, to procedural fairness requirements, and taking your chances in the Employment Relations Authority.

In the worst-case scenario, losing a case and paying any remedies ordered is likely to be less expensive and disruptive than continuing to employ a querulant. The employer would then need to show clear evidence as to why reinstatement to employment as a remedy is impracticable, and that the continuation of the employment relationship is untenable.

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About Author

Erin Burke

Employment Lawyer and Director at Practica Legal Email: erin@practicalegal.co.nz phone: 027 459 3375