Conflict resolution is more than just a disciplinary and grievance procedure.
How can the people profession move towards a human-centric approach, which balances ethical practices of wellbeing and reconciliation, but also meets the legal obligations of their employer? What are the best ways to handle workplace conflict, when it’s no longer just an operational process?
Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it, let’s do it, let’s… what… fall in love?
No, no, no—I’m not talking about falling in love, my starry-eyed people professionals. I’m talking about conflict resolution.
And unlike Ella Fitzgerald, I’m not just making it up. Because while there’s no conclusive research to show that show birds, bees, educated fleas, or any other animal fall in love (sorry, Ella), there are lots of studies showing that conflict resolution exists throughout the animal kingdom (…well maybe not for fleas, those little suckers are a law unto themselves). But for bees, birds, and almost every other animal and primate — including us humans—conflict resolution is a thing.
And a very important thing at that.
Common side-effects of conflict are stress, a drop in motivation and productivity, anxiety, loss of self-confidence, depression, and sickness. So, quick and effective resolution techniques are vital.
But, if crows and bees can manage their conflicts, and if primates have been resolving grievances and disciplinary issues since Nigel the Neanderthal first nabbed his cave-mate’s juicy beetle brunch, it can’t be that hard, right?
Ask your average HR professional and they’d probably tell you that it’s one on the most common workplace challenges. And that’s why ‘conflict resolution’ racks up around 22,000 google searches each month.
So, what are the best ways to handle workplace conflict? And does it always have to be clipboards and confrontation at dawn, or is there another way?
Grievance and disciplinary procedures
A disciplinary procedure is the formal system for addressing poor conduct or performance of an employee, while a grievance procedure sets out the process for dealing with a problem or complaint raised by an employee. And every organisation must have both. The most important regulations for employers can be found in the Employment Act 2008 and Employments Tribunals (Constitutions and Rules of Procedure) (Amendment) Regulations 2008. While an employer should also abide by the Acas Code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures to properly defend any employment tribunals that may arise. If they don’t, then the tribunal might adjust any awards by up to 25% for unreasonable failure to comply.
The procedures and policies should be set down in writing, should be practical, fair, easy to understand, and transparent, and should be readily available for employees to access, with any updates being notified. Acas have a comprehensive guide for disciplinary and grievance procedures, which can be tailored to your organisation. But in any event, it’s important that people know what’s expected of them, so that they can go about their work with confidence. And it’s also important that they feel empowered to bring up an issue themselves and know the best way to do that.
But just because your organisation has a great procedure in place, doesn’t mean that managers should be in a hurry to see it in action. Just like every other type of relationship, there are informal ways to resolve workplace conflict, and they’re often less damaging to employee relationships than their formal counterparts. Just imagine if people waved prenuptial agreements or divorce papers around each time that they had a disagreement with their significant other—the relationship probably wouldn’t last that long.
And the figures might point towards organisations being ready to take a step back from risk-averse, formal processes. According to CIPD research conducted in 2015, 57% of employers had used formal disciplinary action in the last 12 months, while 54% had used formal grievance procedures. By 2020 this dropped significantly to 44% and 41% respectively.
Of course, an employee may demand to go down the formal route or an issue might be too serious for informal intervention. And in that case employers should act accordingly. But, otherwise, sticking rigidly to procedure is unlikely to deliver the best results for people or their organisations. It often leads to people become more entrenched in their views, feeling less free to communicate, and feeling attacked rather than understood.
So, how can the people profession move towards a human-centric approach, which balances ethical practices of wellbeing and reconciliation, but also meets the legal obligations of their employer?
While a simple but supportive one-on-one chat with a line manager or HR manager is often enough to work out some issues, there are more proactive ways to manage grievance and discipline in the workplace, without dusting off the formal policies.
Training in employee relationships
Employee relationship management has long been an aspect of the people profession. But with an increasing focus on employee experience and wellbeing—as well as best practice— employee relationship skills are becoming more desirable.
People professionals and line managers with this skillset can mitigate risk, but they’re also trained to handle difficult conversations, make neutral evaluations, and diffuse stressful situations. With a solution-oriented focus, they can look beyond judgment, and encourage people to come to a mutually beneficial conclusion.
Training focuses on active listening, so that managers can pay attention to the feelings and opinions of others, while learning about any contributing factors. And it gives HR professionals the tools to stay calm and focused, so they can remain impartial and logical.
This kind of training can help people in your organisation feel valued and listened to, so that possible conflicts are mentioned early, instead of being allowed to fester.
Internal or external mediation
Mediation can use impartial internal managers with the right skillsets, or bring in external third-party experts, to help settle disputes and even improve relationships.
The process is flexible, voluntary, and any resulting agreement is usually informal—that means its morally, rather than legally binding. The aim is to create a safe and confidential setting for involved parties to hold open conversations and hopefully come to an amicable solution, under the guidance of an impartial intermediary.
This kind of approach can be a great step for relationship or communication breakdowns, clashes of personality, and even for more serious issues like harassment and bullying.
A focus on following-up
Often, workplace conflict resolution stops once a decision has been reached. But follow-ups with a focus on restoring unity, compromise, and collaboration are an important ongoing measure.
Conflict can often reoccur if people managers aren’t willing to revisit issues and check-in on the people involved.
Consider team-building exercises or training for the people involved, so that they feel empowered to recognise and manage growing future conflicts before they become serious.
A prevention-first culture
Conflict resolution is all about reactionary measures to existing issues. But a workplace culture based on trust, where mangers have the skills and training to intervene early, and people have the confidence to address minor conflict before it escalates, will minimise incidents of harmful conflict.
There are lots of ways that HR professionals can help to create a minimal-conflict culture:
- Set clear goals, aims, and roles for team members.
- Be realistic about timescales.
- Be clear about organisational expectations of conduct and work standards.
- Remain objective and act consistently.
- Act professionally and always maintain confidentiality.
- Encourage people to have confidence in their HR team and managers by providing necessary employee relationship and conflict management training.
- Provide various reporting channels including email, phone, messaging, face to face, and anonymous channels.
- Encourage trust and personal responsibility.
- Discourage punitive blame and shame behaviours.
- Use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements when discussing conflict.
- Encourage open conversation.
- Take disciplinary actions and grievances seriously and always investigate thoroughly.
And last of all, but perhaps most importantly, make the most of employee voice insights with HR software analysis tools. Detailed reports can help you to understand your employees, their working style, their personal circumstances, and where tension may arise in teams. All of which are important in tackling the so-called ‘iceberg of ignorance’, whereby 100% of problems are visible to frontline workers, while only 4% of problems are visible to leadership. This difference in perspective is one of the main sources and issues that contribute to workplace conflict. But with data-backed insights the iceberg melts away.
As Josh Bersin says, “The new world of engagement is one of ‘listening on many channels’ and letting employees speak up, give suggestions, and contribute to every decision you make. And believe me, if you do this, your company will outperform your peers.”
So, whether you’re doing it to keep up with the bees or just doing it for your people, effective conflict resolution is becoming a core strategic role for the people profession, rather than an operational and transactional role. And a grievance and disciplinary policy are no longer the only, or even the best, answer.