By Rob Whitaker, head of employment law at Tees Law
Finding effective ways to manage workplace disputes is vital to the success of any business and will boost recruitment and retention. Getting it wrong can mean talented employees leaving, increased recruitment costs, reduced productivity and potentially, costly claims being pursued through the Tribunals and Courts. Here, Head of Employment Law at Tees Law, Rob Whitaker, outlines the main contributing factors to workplace conflict and the strategies businesses can implement to minimise disputes at work.
Common causes of workplace disputes
The causes of workplace disputes are many and varied, including personality differences, poorly clarified roles, mismanagement of organisational change and poor communication. By exploring two of the most common triggers of conflict we can begin to recognise the ways in which employers can effectively address them and reduce the risk of employment complaints.
Disengaged and unhappy employees are far more likely to leave or bring complaints. If your employees don’t feel that they can raise a concern they are having at work, then issues may grow. Indeed, it is unlawful for employers to treat employees who make certain disclosures detrimentally, and it is recommended that you have robust whistleblowing, grievance and anti-bullying policies and procedures in place alongside a positive open culture.
Good and regular communication is key to understanding the workforce and identifying issues effectively, whether by informal resolution or a more formalised process. The Tribunals will expect employers to act consistently, fairly and in accordance with their procedures and the ACAS Code, but a large part of getting it right is to foster a culture of open communication, where employees are encouraged to have honest conversations and address problems promptly before they become more serious and threaten to derail relationships.
Poor management may be due to a variety of factors including a lack of training or personality clashes. Managers need to understand how to treat their employees respectfully and fairly and in doing so are more likely to encourage employees to work productively. As managers learn how to address and diffuse possible issues successfully and quickly, employees are happier, and teams become more cohesive.
To manage conflict, employers should ensure that policies are clear and consistent (and kept up to date and legally compliant), and the rationale for business decisions is transparent.
Strategies to minimise conflict
Although conflict is often viewed in a negative light it is important to remember that disagreements can lead to positive change in the workplace. That said there are a number of strategies businesses can adopt in order to minimise disputes in the organisation and reduce the subsequent impact they can have.
Implement guidelines for resolving disputes
Whether it’s an employee complaint or you have issues with the employee’s performance, attendance, punctuality or behaviour, it’s essential to have good policies in place that are legally compliant. Absence of good policies or a failure by managers to follow or implement procedures will leave the business exposed to potential claims, even if there were good reasons for the decisions taken. On the other hand, being able to clarify priorities in the workplace and define the roles and responsibilities of employees and their managers, can go a long way to promoting a joined-up approach.
One of the key frameworks employers should have in place is an equal opportunities policy. Establishing a legitimate equal opportunities policy shows that you are aware of issues relating to discrimination, harassment and victimisation and that you are comitted to following the relevant legislation. Having a policy like this which incorporates a wide variety of complaints in the workplace not only means you can maintain consistency in your approach but also creates a foundation for you to resolve future disputes which are centred around a similar theme.
Effective management training
As mentioned, managers have a key role to play when it comes to disputes in the workplace. It is therefore worth considering training managers to become mediators in conflicts and provide them with improved negotiation skills (a key component of dispute resolution). These skills will help managers to become better listeners and more empathetic towards employees. It is also important that managers are given the time to familiarise themselves with the internal policies around disputes to ensure they protect the business from any potential claims.
Create an ‘open door’ policy
As an employer you have a duty of care to take reasonable steps to protect your employees whilst at work. Ensuring staff feel they can raise concerns when they arise will give you a good opportunity to head things off and resolve matters – reducing the risk of costly, time consuming complaints. Even if the concerns are not upheld, an employee is less likely to escalate a complaint or leave if they know that they have been listened to and their concerns carefully considered.
Creating an environment where employees feel confident discussing any issues they may have with their manager can take time but it is a really important step in improving relationships in the workplace. Regular one-to-ones are great for this as they can help to identify potential issues early on. In addition to this it’s vital to have a well drafted grievance and disciplinary procedure and policy in place – making sure all employees know how to access it should they need it. For more advice on dealing with grievances at work you can read our guide here.
Managing disputes in the workplace can be challenging, particularly when the conflict is complex and the issues are sensitive, perhaps even more so during these recent extraordinary times. However, investing management time in fostering a healthy environment for conflict resolution, supported by effective policies and procedures, will bring numerous benefits to your organisation in terms of reduced stress and increased performance and productivity amongst your employees, as well as enabling you to continue to recruit and retain top talent.