How can small businesses resolve conflict in the workplace? Employment lawyer and HR advisor Catherine Wilson outlines the issues employers should look out for and how to respond informally and formally to workplace issues.
Workplace conflict is caused by human nature. Nowhere is that more clearly demonstrated than by the much-quoted remark: “10% of conflicts are due to difference in opinion. 90% are due to the delivery and the wrong tone of voice”.
There is, however, no doubt that the complexities and pressures of COVID-19 have seen an increase in workplace issues, as employers and employees grapple with the impact of COVID-19 on working life over the past 18 months.
The effects of the pandemic on workplace conflict
Employment lawyers have seen the volume of complaints and disputes rise significantly over this period. These range from the emergence of increasing mental health issues to concerns about health and safety, as well as the increasing divide – or should that be chasm – between workplace and home-based staff. At its most extreme, some of these grievances have already begun to filter though to an increasing number of Employment Tribunal claims.
Disciplinary and grievance procedures
So how can employers address these issues? All employers, irrespective of size, are legally obliged to have a disciplinary policy and a so-called grievance procedure whereby disgruntled employees can raise concerns regarding their employment (Employment Rights Act 1996 as amended by section 35 of the Employment Act 2002).
In certain situations, formal action under these policies may be the only option in certain situations. I discuss below these and other types of policies and procedures that every employer should consider implementing in their own workplace.
Resolving workplace conflict informally
I start this blog with a plea for employers to proactively manage disputes at the early stages. All effective disciplinary and grievance procedures include an informal initial stage and yet often it is this early stage that is either overlooked or rushed through.
Early resolution requires intervention and a determined effort to both identity and resolve the concern or problem. Informal does not, however, mean cavalier. Both interactions coupled with interventions and follow-up actions should be carefully documented for future reference in the absence of resolution.
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Tips for informal responses
The internet is full of tips and guidance but, from informed experience, these can be distilled into the following summary guidance for employers:
- Define and communicate acceptable behaviour in the workplace, including your expectations of staff and specific job roles
- Communicate your policies to your workforce. Ensure they are easily available and regularly updated. Make sure the workforce understands them and knows how to use them
- Early intervention is always the most effective. Do not shirk from conflict. Deal with potential niggles at the earliest opportunity
- Understand the motivation and “red lines” for your workforce. Pay attention to (but do not be dominated by) the so called “what’s in it for me?” mindset
- Pick your battles and avoid conflict for conflict’s sake; encourage and train your supervisors and line managers to do likewise
Resolving workplace conflict formally
Unfortunately, there are some situations where the informal option is unsuccessful or inappropriate. Examples would include situations where the working relationships have broken down and/or the grievance has become highly personalized, such as a female staff member complaining about the unwanted attentions of her line manager. It is for this reason that both disciplinary and grievance procedures also contain more formal stages permitting independent investigation and the escalation to more senior managers outside the normal chain of line management.
These more sensitive situations can also give rise to allegations of potential criminal activities. The plethora of complaints relating to alleged breaches of health and safety legislation and non-compliance with COVID-19 regulations would also potentially fall within this area.
The power of policy
Expert legal advice may be required at this stage, but consideration should also be given to the introduction of more bespoke polices, such as harassment, bullying or whistleblowing. Although not normally viewed as essential or strictly required as a matter of legislation, these policies can be extremely helpful in creating an effective framework for dealing with sensitive complaints.
Third party mediation
Finally, employers should not disregard the place of external intervention in the form of a specialist external mediator and/or trained HR professionals. With their focus on resolution and reaching a conciliated agreement, these third parties can often either resolve or at least reduce the scope of seemingly intractable workplace disputes. This in turn can lead to not only to a reduction in conflict but also in costs and management time.
Collective workplace disputes involving issues affecting several employees can also be resolved via the collective mediation services offered by ACAS. Again, these interventions can be highly effective and often avoid the need for costly employment tribunal litigation.
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Written by Catherine Wilson
Catherine is an expert employment lawyer and HR problem solver. She works as an Employment Partner at W Legal Limited and also runs her own employment law and HR consultancy, training, and writing business, McBrownie Ltd.