In workplace disputes, doing nothing is not an option
Whether you are a large or small business, you will at some point, encounter a workplace dispute. This may involve you, the employer (or manager) directly, or it may be employees under your supervision. And what you do next, can profoundly impact the people involved and the business at large.
‘they can work it out amongst themselves’ is not a strategy
If left unchecked, a workplace dispute has the potential to quickly escalate and impact other areas of the business including productivity and profit. In the case of the immediate supervisor who, while not directly involved in the dispute, does oversee the employees, two things should not be an option:
Telling employees to work it out themselves
Think about your responsibility as a supervisor or employer. You have a necessary obligation to take reasonable care to protect employees while at work, and that includes providing a safe work environment staffed by competent employees, the provision of adequate materials for them to perform their duties and a safe and supervised operational environment. This means it’s your duty to care for your employees – and there are many different forms of care falling within that basic definition.
It’s your duty – your job – to manage workplace conflict fairly and without bias. Believing you only need to get involved if the dispute hits the bottom line will cost you a lot more than a decline in profit.
Learn how to recognise a workplace dispute
Not everyone is going to agree on everything at any one time in the workplace. Often small disagreements between employees are the sparks that can quickly ignite a fire requiring urgent containment. These disputes if recognised quickly, can usually be dealt with informally, during a normal workday through discussion. However, if a way forward cannot be seen, or the dispute is about a serious matter, then a more formal approach to resolution may be required.
Well resourced, large organisations usually have simple, fair, confidential, and clear dispute resolution procedures in place to avoid escalation of a dispute. While small and medium-sized businesses may not have such procedures as part of their workplace policies, under the Fair Work Act they still have an obligation to try and resolve the dispute:
“The employee and their manager must first try to resolve the dispute through discussion. If this is unsuccessful, then senior management discusses the matter with the employee to try and resolve the dispute. This could involve one or more escalations to senior managers, depending on the structure of the business.”
So, when you have exhausted your existing skillset to resolve the dispute and failed, it might be time to call the mediator in.
What are the signs of conflict in the workplace?
The only sure thing is that each person processes conflict differently. Sometimes the signs are tricky to identify and other times, they are impossible to ignore. A loud and aggressive argument in the workplace is one of those signs that is impossible to ignore, while other signs of conflict can manifest in more subtle and gradual ways including:
An absence or drop in employee motivation: this can be portrayed by low participation in team meetings, no enthusiasm for new tasks and a lack of engagement with colleagues
Behavioural change: a noticeable shift in normal behaviour – an employee can become quieter and more reserved, angrier, disinterested, or preoccupied. This behaviour could be described as the employee not being themselves.
Drop in productivity: taking longer than usual to perform tasks or a decline in output.
Absenteeism: arriving late, leaving early, or taking off more time than is usual.
If one or some of these signs are present, then it’s appropriate you investigate why. No matter the size of the business, employees must know who they can speak to regarding a dispute, and if it’s you, then you must ensure the employees know that you are that person to turn to in confidence. Initial action may involve encouraging the employee to respectfully communicate their issue to you openly and honestly. As the employer or manager, you should be prepared for such conversations. Listen carefully, respond without bias and have a process ready to attempt to resolve the dispute.
What happens if the workplace conflict continues?
In short, a disaster in the making. But let’s unpack that into a series of mini disasters:
The conflict affects more employees than those involved directly in the dispute. If you have ever worked in a team where two people are in conflict with each other, you know how awful it is for everyone around them. Everyone has to navigate the conflict carefully just to do their job to the point where it just becomes increasingly difficult and exhausting. The conflict is now infecting other people by taking the joy and ease out of their work (cue motivation slump).
Productivity inevitably declines because as the conflict grows, so too does the many facets of it to the point people may not be able to be in proximity of each other. If your business is customer facing, imagine what those customers are thinking?
Profit decline is part of productivity decline. What if employees in conflict are spending less time at work? Not doing anything that may help the other party? As the conflict grows, what if one party starts to sabotage another? Yes, this is a worst-case scenario – but don’t think it doesn’t happen.
Employee culture dives and ‘the broken window’ theory kicks in whereby if organisations choose to ignore early signs of poor behaviour, then that becomes an accepted form of company culture. In other words, if you don’t repair that broken window as soon as it cracks, then before long you’re dealing with graffiti on the walls, broken office equipment, rancid staff kitchens and the list goes on – because when nobody cares – nobody cares.
Negative brand impact means the problem has gone from an internal one to an external one, now impacting the business by reputation. While we often see this issue play out in larger corporations and well-known companies, it can also impact small business too. If given a choice, nobody wants to go with the a-hole outfit. Brand reputation can also make recruitment difficult.
With all that in mind, let’s move towards conflict resolution.
What is a basic process for dealing with conflict in the workplace?
If attempting to resolve a dispute between employees, there is a process you can use involving a series of steps where you meet separately and confidentially with each party and hear their side of the story. At this point you can play the role of judge or mediator. A judge decides the outcome and both parties must accept the judge’s decision. A mediator allows both parties to resolve the dispute between them and reach an outcome together, in a facilitated discussion. These are two very different strategies, and potentially, have very different outcomes. In the scenario of a mediator facilitated discussion, the focus is to remain neutral, treat each party equally and not provide advice to either or both parties. You can find out more about the mediation process here.
When is it time to call the mediator in?
Let’s assume for one moment that you are not a manager in a large corporation that has a well-resourced HR department (which if you were, we would hope HR has procedures in place to resolve the dispute appropriately). But what if you are a small or medium business owner which means you are the HR department? What do you do then?
If you have done your best to meet your obligations to the employees as we discussed earlier, but the dispute has not been resolved, then it may be time to call in the mediator. This demonstrates you are fulfilling your obligation to the employees and you are handing over the management of the dispute to a practitioner highly skilled in this very thing. They will be independent, completely free of bias and have no ‘skin in the game’ regarding the outcome. Mediators are excellent listeners too, and people in a dispute need to feel they are seen and heard – this is extremely important to encourage people to shift from a positional perspective (I’m right and you’re wrong) to a more open and negotiable position. This is key to reaching an outcome both parties can live with. One of a mediator’s super powers is being able help each individual party arrive at this point of acceptance, and at this point, it might be best to outsource the dispute resolution to the expert, so you can continue to do what you’re great at – running a successful business.
To help you prepare for mediation, we have created a library of helpful information including checklists, tips and added detail around the process of mediation. For useful and relevant information you can download for free, we encourage you to visit our resources page.
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