Conflict is inevitable in any workplace. Personality clashes, misunderstandings, inconsistent working styles and different expectations around duties and workload can arise at any time.
Employees can often resolve minor disagreements themselves. Disputes of a more serious nature – including allegations such as bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment – can be much more difficult to manage. These are beyond resolution by the employees who are involved. Even a personality clash between colleagues, if “left untreated”, can escalate into a long term dispute and impact upon employee morale and productivity.
Employee Disputes – A Common Chronology
Although no interpersonal problem is the same, the employee dispute cases that we have worked on often follow a pattern.
Firstly, the conflict arises between two (or more) employees. The employees become increasingly unhappy and become critical of each other. The tension between them increases and they may take time off work as the stress takes hold. They antagonise each other in meetings, and start to avoid working together.
One complains to a manager – either about harassment, bullying, discrimination or poor performance by the other employee. The manager attempts to work with the employees to improve the situation, but being close to the people involved and having a history of dealings with one or both of the employees, the manager may have limited opportunity to guide the employees back to a positive working relationship. If the manager cannot resolve this “people problem”, the mantle is passed onto the Human Resources Manager.
By now the employees in conflict are often entrenched in their positions and feeling increasingly frustrated, turning their anger on their employer as well. Those working around them are sensing the tension and feeling pressured to “take sides”. They start to feel uncomfortable and avoid engaging with the two employees. Then one of the employees makes a formal complaint or WorkCover claim, involves the union as an industrial matter, and refuses to work with the other employee, the manager or with HR.
Is this sounding familiar?
Addressing Workplace Conflict
It takes time and commitment to work through employee issues where there is conflict.
Worklogic Consulting often becomes involved in workplace disputes because the parties are too polarised for anyone internal in the organisation – even an experienced manager or a skilled Human Resources Manager – to move the parties towards resolution. In some cases, such as where a complaint has been made by one or more employees, our clients opt for a formal investigation. In the absence of any such complaint, consider holding an in-house mediation or a facilitated discussion between the disputing employees. Mediation or a facilitated discussion can also be utilised after an investigation to assist in re-building the working relationship.
As the mediator/facilitator is an independent third party, there are less likely to be perceptions that one party is being favoured over another. Further, employees often feel their grievances are being taken more seriously if an independent, external person is involved.
So How Can Mediation And Facilitated Discussion Be Utilised In The Workplace?
Mediation is an informal and flexible process. It serves not only to give the parties an opportunity to discuss their concerns and listen to each other’s concerns; it can assist in preserving the ongoing working relationship. A mediation comprises the mediator’s opening statements, the participants’ statements, the mediator’s summary of the parties’ perspectives, the mediator setting out an agreed agenda on a whiteboard and discussing each agenda item in turn, having private sessions with parties, and then moving to the negotiation phase.
A facilitated discussion is less structured than mediation. A facilitated discussion is like an informal meeting between the parties.
In both processes, the mediator/facilitator sets ground rules of behaviour, addresses power imbalances, and engages in reality checking, reframing and assisting the parties to discuss ways in which they can improve the future ongoing working relationship.
Because a facilitated discussion is less formal, depending on the circumstances, for some people it may be more palatable and less intimidating. For example, we were recently approached to assist with a workplace conflict between two senior managers. Neither of the employees believed that there was a conflict as such – they each believed that the other person was at fault. For this reason, they weren’t prepared to attend mediation, apparently because in their minds “mediation” had connotations of both parties being at fault. Both senior managers agreed, however, to attend a facilitated discussion, as they saw it more akin to a meeting that was chaired by an external facilitator. Interesting isn’t it? The subtle differences between the two processes were enough to encourage these otherwise recalcitrant managers to the table.
Moving Beyond Blame
Both mediation and facilitated discussion are problem-solving processes. The mediator/facilitator encourages the participants to engage directly with each other in a co-operative way, separating the people from the problem by focussing on the issues, not the individuals themselves. This is how participants begin to understand each others’ perspectives, and find themselves working together to draft the ground rules for their ongoing working relationship. Ultimately, most disputing employees come to the realisation that it is in their own interests to find a solution.
In this way, a mediation or facilitated discussion provides an opportunity for misunderstandings to be clarified and explored. Even if the conflict cannot be resolved, the participants have at least had the opportunity to raise their concerns and gain a better understanding of each other’s perspectives. The employer demonstrates its concern for the wellbeing of the employees by organising the meeting. At the same time, the implicit message from the employer is that the employees must take responsibility for improving their working relationship.
What If The Parties Are Not Prepared To Participate?
It is not unusual for parties to refuse to engage in the process.
In a recent matter at Worklogic Consulting, the conflict between the participants was taking place in a small working environment where employee co-operation was critical for the safety of the group and the effective provision of services. Their conflict was playing out in a very public way, and thus having a significant impact on other employees in the group.
While the disputing employees recognised this, neither of them wished to be seen to be giving in. Loss of face was important to both of them, given the public nature of their conflict. During telephone conversations with the mediator prior to the mediation, the two employees acknowledged they could not continue with the current situation. This occurred in the absence of any pressure being on the employees to participate.
Both employees began to recognise the benefits of participation in mediation. While this takes patience on behalf of the mediator as well as the parties, a successful outcome was achieved in mediation. By the end of the mediation, the warring employees had formulated and agreed on a plan for how they could work together positively in the future, and they made a commitment to treat each other with respect. The two employees will probably never be friends, but the mediation process provided them with mechanisms to rebuild trust and a healthy working relationship.
Getting staff to talk through interpersonal conflict sounds simple. And sometimes it is. Your internal Human Resources personnel sits down with those involved and everybody talks. But where managers try to resolve a situation that has become toxic, the parties may “clam up” or become defensive. In these circumstances, using an external mediator or facilitator who has no internal “history” or perceived allegiances can encourage a more candid and constructive response from the parties.
Feel free to contact us should you have a situation that warrants an external mediation or facilitated discussion.
Succession Planning Matters
Succession Planning may not be something that’s at the forefront of the strategic planning for your organisation. It may even be an uncomfortable or even confronting topic to face. Some people might fear that any attempt to plan for turnover will be misconstrued or go horribly wrong. Think King Lear.
With the ageing population and the proportion of employees increasingly in their 50s, 60s and 70s, however, you’ll find that you are rolling out that time-honoured workplace ritual of the farewell lunch, gift and card far more frequently.
Part of what makes any organisation run smoothly is the organic building of systems, processes and external relationships. Often such corporate wisdom, intellectual capital and “way of doing things” cannot be reduced into an office manual. Every time one of your staff retires, such valuable information may disappear with them.
Ensuring you have a well-oiled succession planning process will bring about all sorts of benefits for your organisation, including:
- Sharing, recording and transferring organisational knowledge
- Mentoring by older workers of younger workers prior to retirement
- Smooth, seamless and mutually agreed personnel transition
- Minimising the cost of short-term solutions to unforeseen departures, including the cost of temporary staff
- Minimising the “shock” of change in the remaining workforce
Importantly, succession planning should not be used as a pseudonym for age discrimination in the workplace. Make sure you act in a way that respects everyone in the organisation and responds reasonably and flexibly to the choices of workers in the latter part of their career. Any forced retirement of an older manager simply because of their age is not only illegal, but also sends the message to the remaining employees that they in turn may not be valued for their merit and skills. Older workers should not be treated like Boxer in “Animal Farm”.
In some cases, succession planning might form part of a broader business strategy, including restructure options – beyond just the harmonious transfer of knowledge, skills and duties.
If any one of a host of internal or external factors involves you restructuring your business to survive and thrive in a changing world, then be very clear and transparent about communicating that planning to all staff affected, and make sure it’s not motivated by any sense of “getting rid of old wood”. Take particular care when an internal restructure, or a sweeping change in the organisation’s processes, systems or culture, has the potential to affect the older workers hardest.
For example, in Morgan v Austin Health & Anor  VCAT 2229 (7 November 2007), Austin Health decided that it needed to standardise the number of sessions each of its Hypertension Clinic specialists conducted in order to survive financially. This decision meant that the founder of the clinic, 71 year old Professor Trefor Morgan, would lose three clinic sessions a fortnight, and other specialists (who happened to be younger) would increase sessions so that all clinic specialists had at least two sessions a fortnight.
Professor Morgan claimed that this was age discrimination. He alleged that a substantial purpose of the restructure was to ease him out of the Clinic because he was thought to be too old to occupy such a pivotal role in the Clinic. He stated that Austin Health’s succession planning strategy “required him to be replaced with younger, less experienced specialists”.
Austin Health argued that the succession planning was due to its budgetary constraints, compounded by the problems inherent in any one specialist, such as Professor Morgan, in having a large complement of sessions. They said that the absence of any specialist due to illness, holiday or attending a conference would impact considerably on the Clinic’s finances and service delivery.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (“VCAT”) did not accept that Austin Health had approached the issue of succession planning with the intention of engaging in age discrimination. It held that the succession planning proposal was put forward for the reasons advanced, and not through any desire at all to discriminate on the basis of age. VCAT noted that Austin Health was not a workplace that was intolerant or discouraging of older workers, and that Austin Health did not view Professor Morgan any differently because of his age. Nor did the restructure proposal contemplate Professor Morgan retiring. In fact, Austin Health had rejected Professor Morgan’s offer to retire over a staged period. This further indicated that the reorganisation was not to get rid of him but to restructure fundamentally the business operations.
VCAT found that, in any event, all specialists, regardless of age, were to be allocated an equal number of sessions. Dr Morgan’s treatment was therefore not, on its face, less favourable than the treatment of other sessional specialists in the Clinic.
In summary, when undertaking succession planning:
- Do not use a restructure to achieve another (illegal) aim
- Consider whether there will be any detrimental impact on your employees, and if so, whether that impact will be more serious for workers of a particular age, gender, family situation or other attribute
- Think about how you may want to encourage all staff to maintain and transfer corporate knowledge and skills
- Be clear and consistent with how you treat all your staff when it comes to structural succession planning
- Consult with older workers about flexible and reasonable ways they wish to work as they get older