Suddenly, your quiet contemplation is interrupted by a cacophony of raised voices. You peek out of your cubicle to find two co-workers engaging in a loud war of words. While this occurrence shouldn’t take place, at times tempers do flare and fights can occur -- even within the confines of the office walls. If you witness an event of this type, you may find yourself wondering if these verbal sparring partners will be fired. The answer to this question depends on a number of factors.
The contract type under which the feuding co-workers are operating plays a major part in determining whether they will be given their walking papers. If the workers are protected by a contract that prohibits their firing, your employer cannot let them go regardless of how nasty the disagreement was unless the contract contains an out clause that allows for firing in select circumstances. If, on the other hand, they are at-will employees, they can be fired at the discretion of management, sometimes without notice. Employees working under "at will" contracts can be fired at any time for any reason as long as the reason isn't one that is legally prohibited -- for example, gender, race or age. If the type of contract under which the workers are working differs, your employer could fire the unprotected work and not the protected one, but doing so would be highly unethical and, as such, is unlikely to occur.
Contents of Fight
The actual words the feuding workers use in their spat will influence the severity of the consequences. If one or both workers make a disparaging comment that pertains to race, gender or religion, the consequences may be more severe -- and could including the firing. Workers are protected against discrimination while on the job, and comments that pertain to these touchy areas could be deemed discriminatory and lead to termination. If there is proof that only one worker made inappropriate comments, your employer can terminate the comment maker but keep the other feuder on the job.
In instances where this verbal fight is actually a part of a larger instance of bullying, the worker who is perceived as the bully can be fired. Many states have laws that protect workers from workplace bullying, so if this incident fits into the category of bullying, the punishment may be harsher. If this verbal fight is a stand-alone incident, however, it does not fall under the umbrella of bullying as bullying is, according to the definition offered by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, “repeated unreasonable actions,” not simply one altercation.
Even when arguing co-workers aren’t fired, they rarely escape all consequences. If managers find that two workers under their charge are unable to work together cooperatively, they can impose a sanction -- such as a suspension -- to induce them to resolve their beef. They may elect to move one or both individuals to a different department or substantially change their job duties so they are no longer required to interact with each other. The providing of alternative consequences likely wouldn't accompany a single fight -- unless the fight was large in scope -- but would instead be the result of a series of verbal spats that indicate that resolution isn't possible.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: The Employment-at-will Doctrine: Three Major Exceptions
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Federal Laws Prohibiting Job Discrimination
- Washington State Department of Labor & Industries: Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behavior: What Everyone Needs to Know
- National Conference of State Legislators: The At-Will Presumption and Exceptions to the Rule
Erin Schreiner is a freelance writer and teacher who holds a bachelor's degree from Bowling Green State University. She has been actively freelancing since 2008. Schreiner previously worked for a London-based freelance firm. Her work appears on eHow, Trails.com and RedEnvelope. She currently teaches writing to middle school students in Ohio and works on her writing craft regularly.