So much for Covid-19 solidarity. A CIPD poll of employers found that more than 20% had seen increases in levels of negative conflict, including bullying and harassment, since the start of the pandemic.
Everyone felt the warm glow of togetherness in the early stages of lockdown, the feeling of a community based on looking out for each other. More people taken out of the pressure cooker of the office environment meant a new perspective on relationships: more regular Zoom chats, more time to talk about personal issues, longing for normality. Workplace commentators were signalling a new beginning for employee relations based on an awareness of the importance of wellbeing, of more ‘human’ ways of doing business. The crisis had been cathartic.
The reality, instead, has been the recognition that disagreements and conflict are a constant and unavoidable part of working lives. Little has changed. In its report into managing conflict in January 2020, the CIPD found that more than a third of employees had experienced some form of interpersonal conflict in the previous year. But the real issue is another finding from the same report: that 24% of staff also thought that challenging issues such as bullying and harassment were ‘swept under the carpet in their organisation’.
No amount of wellbeing awareness, or isolation and the need for connection, will stop people from being different from each other and sometimes finding those differences a problem.
It’s fortunate that managing this most complex of people problems is simple in principle. There only needs to be a recognition in HR and an organisation’s management that there is such a thing as healthy conflict. We know how important diversity is, and that needs to extend to an appreciation of the value of a diversity of personalities and views. In other words, there has to be a culture of trust and confidence. Trusting people to learn, to understand, to do the right thing; confidence that there is professional support and systems to help people keep any conflict within the bounds of what can be considered as being healthy. A ‘clear air’ culture leads to more trust, honesty, innovation, support for diversity – and a better working environment for everyone.
There’s no magic wand of course. Employee relations need to be put at the centre of HR and backed up with a proactive approach: with conversations skills and training, access to mediation, and the knowledge that investigations will be carried out to the highest professional standards.