According to research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the number of organisations needing to rely on disciplinary action, grievance procedures and external mediation has increased during a two-year period. It can be inferred from this that during times of hardship, the ability to manage disagreements between employees has become more crucial than ever. Clearly burying one’s head in the sand when faced with a spiralling conflict between two employees isn’t the smartest move, but sometimes it can be difficult to know when is the appropriate time to involve oneself in an employee dispute.
According to David Webb, a key member of the ACAS team communicating workplace advice, there’s no time like the present. “We always promote that a line manager needs to encourage open communication between themselves and their staff,” he says. “That way any problems or potential problems can be spotted early. And if they’re spotted early they should be dealt with early – in essence, nipped in the bud.” While often it can be tempting to assume these problems will resolve themselves, this is rarely the case and they usually end up becoming more serious, resulting in much more far-reaching issues. “If you let problems drift or you think the problem’s going to go away, usually it doesn’t go away,” he argues. “Usually it grows and gets worse. It might even spread to other people and then becomes more difficult to deal with.”
All of us are aware what it’s like blundering into the middle of an argument. All too quickly you find that, rather than helping to diffuse the situation, you end up exacerbating things. This is why Webb would always emphasise handling things with a light touch. “The line manager, if they’re in touch with their staff, might become aware of something and might think: ‘I’m just going to have a quiet word,’” he explains. “Completely informal, nothing on record, with the people involved. Probably do it separately and ask, ‘What’s all this about so and so?’” By allowing members of staff to feel they’re being listened to, a tactful manager can get grievances aired in a manner that helps to vent the pressure which has built up.
Obviously, this is a best-case scenario and not every conflict will be so easily resolved. “Sometimes the situation might be a little more testing,” acknowledges Webb. “Those circumstances might require a difficult conversation with the parties involved, again to see if there is any common ground.” While you may like to keep these situations seeming light and informal, they will require a good deal of preparation. Planning will always pay dividends in difficult situations like these and a manager should be very clear on how they will approach the issue and the resolution they would like to achieve.
Sometimes though, even this won’t be an option. If the individuals’ positions have become more entrenched, even getting them to sit in the same room may be a hard sell. This is where the help of a professional mediator can be invaluable. “Mediation is really when somebody independent – it might just be another manager in the organisation who has nothing to do with the matter – would look into the situation,” Webb explains. “They would try to understand what’s going on between two people who have fallen out and then try to find a way that the individuals can agree to work together again.” However, a mediator is not there to tell people what they ‘should’ do or how they’re meant to behave. “He would just try to get the two people to understand one another a little better and find a way forward that they would agree on.”
There are cases where things, for one reason or another, are far more volatile and nuclear in nature. One such example is where a dispute is between an employee and their line manager – such cases can pose huge problems as they can potentially lead to tribunals or the loss of one or both members of staff. Largely, it comes down to having the right frameworks in place ahead of time. “A company needs clear policies on what it’s going to do if it feels an employee has been insubordinate and how it’s going to handle that,” Webb states. But there is a flipside to every argument and there needs to be measures to protect employees with legitimate grievances.
“You also have to have a system for dealing with serious complaints,” he explains. “If the employee feels that their manager is bullying them, you need a grievance procedure whereby the employee would know who they could lodge a complaint with and then a procedure that follows to actually deal with that complaint.” Any framework needs to outline who will investigate complaints and act as intermediary to ensure both parties get an unbiased hearing. Finally, as with any disciplinary measure, both employees and managers need to be aware of what the potential actions taken will be. “If these frameworks are clearly set out so they’re easy to understand, then it can help because it prevents misunderstandings and any sort of feeling of injustice or unfairness.”
However, having a practical conflict-resolution framework in place should prevent things ever reaching this point, and open communication as a part of the organisational culture can help reduce potential disputes or misunderstandings. As Webb concludes: “If an organisation communicates well and consults with its staff on changes in the workplace and what policies it has, then you’ve got a better chance of disagreements either being limited or entirely eradicated and not happening in the first place.”