Employers should be looking again at the grievance and complaint standards they have in place, making sure they are watertight, and provide the alternative to a slide into conflict and tribunals.
The stage beyond the basics is to think about whether staff across the organisation have the skills to manage and deal with issues effectively and sensitively to avoid any unnecessary escalation of cases. Making sure employees are getting a good ‘service’ in terms of how their grievances are dealt with, as well as avoiding situations that blow up into stories for media and problems for operations.
Openness to discuss problems
There’s an opportunity here to demonstrate best practice: a positive working culture where people have enough belief and trust in their organisation that they’re willing to talk openly about problems, to admit failures and weaknesses. The biggest mistake organisations can make is to see any kind of conflict – even at the level of minor disagreement – as unwelcome and a problem, something to be avoided, and where it occurs, should be immediately swept into grievance processes.
Introducing better systems around conflict and conversations should be a platform for improving the working culture as a whole, encouraging trust and openness.
A useful starting point for change is to carry out a conflict audit to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your current provision in terms of what happens to complaints, whistleblowing, complaint handling, grievance resolution, performance management, absence management and the relevant learning and development. Push for involvement and role models from the leadership team. Encourage senior executives to consider what it means to actively encourage ‘good conflict’, supporting opportunities for open conversations, respecting alternative views, and what it will mean for levels of trust. Make sure there’s a consistent message to managers and staff generally on the value of open conversations.
Improving workplace culture
Some managers have the inbuilt skills to manage conflict constructively. Others will need support if they are to have difficult conversations. Review your management programmes to ensure they include the soft skills involved in embracing positive conflict and defusing negative conflict.
Motivate and train employees to have difficult conversations with each other and with their manager, for example in how to challenge colleagues’ banter or perceived manager’s bullying – skills which can be expanded to include how they respond to difficult situations with the full range of stakeholders working with a a department.
When conflict reaches the formal stages of a grievance or disciplinary hearing, it’s critical that the decision-makers involved, typically senior managers, are always consistent and untainted by subjective perceptions. No individual should ever be seen to be treated differently from another while also demonstrating the same behaviours. Managers need to have the objectivity and confidence to reach a determination against someone where the evidence leads clearly to that outcome – and sometimes that means training in how to weigh and assess the evidence fairly and consistently.
Honesty and transparency in organisations needs to start with the day-to-day conversations of employees – and the pressures from tribunals may well be the necessary spur for change.