Being in conflict with a colleague at work or having employees in your team being in conflict with each other can be stressful for all concerned.  The emotional costs can be high.  In recent years there has been a marked increase in conflict resulting in formal grievances being raised with more frequency.   What can you do about it, and is there a future where the situation can be dealt with without escalation to a formal procedure which can impact negatively on employee morale, cause a drop in productivity, take up management time, and potentially result in costly compensation payments? 

Why have we seen this rise in conflict?

Since the demise of the traditional role of ‘personnel’, the changing role of HR has been centralised in many companies. This means that line managers, many of them not trained in conflict management, have been given more responsibility to manage their own team of people without the necessary support or training.

The diminishing power of Trade Unions has led to a lack of trained union reps able to intervene with these situations when they arise in the workplace and managers not being trained in managing conflict and negotiation.

More demands are being placed on managers as companies find themselves under more external pressures which are passed down the chain of command leading to employees feeling that they are being bullied and harassed.

A lack of good performance management practices and an inability to manage conflict proactively has seen complaints being immediately dealt with as formal grievances.   This is an unnecessary practice and it’s never a great experience for anyone involved on either side of the table.  Unhealthy conflict needs to be dealt with early.  The nettle needs to be firmly grasped early on when it appears and won’t sting.  If left, it’s sure to sting, and badly.  

The increased use of social media has become prominent in its role for conflict escalation, mainly with employees misusing applications such as Twitter and Facebook but also being used as a platform for employees to express their grievances with employers not being able to control the narrative.

Recessions usually lead to more employee complaints and grievances. We saw this in the last recession in 2009.  The employment challenges that Covid-19 continues to bring, including The Job Retention Scheme (‘furlough’) and with redundancies being reported in the news, the situation is likely to repeat itself again. We will undoubtedly see an escalation of the number of conflict cases between employees and their employers.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the call for Equal Pay for Women is pushing employees to challenge companies in their employment and salary pay practices which is also creating an increase in the number of complaints companies are having to deal with.

For all these reasons there is a notable rise in conflict at work and companies need to view conflict differently and address it differently, or it will only continue to increase.

Resolving the conflict

So – what should companies do to manage a situation that won’t be going away anytime soon?

Healthy conflict is good and without it exists the potential for a lack of new ideas and the creation of artificial harmony where everyone ‘agrees’ publicly, but the commitment isn’t really there. After all, you need a little grit in the oyster to make a pearl!   But conflict needs to be harnessed and managed, not allowed to be unresolved and fester.

When things go wrong, it can force us to review a situation, identify any patterns that are arising in the day to day operations of the company and help put procedures in place that may have been missing but have now been identified as a requirement in the company’s HR strategy.   Is there something that’s causing conflict that can be removed?

Companies may want to create a proper conflict management strategy. This will avoid unnecessary escalation from initial complaint to grievance and should make for a healthier working environment.

Line managers need to be supported with development in being able to identify potential problems and tackle issues proactively.   No one likes having a difficult conversation, but with development, managers can become skilled at this.  Managers should also be provided with conflict coaching to help them deal with particular difficult situations, and training in having difficult conversations. 

Unless there is a person within the company adequately trained in coaching conflict situations, it will probably require outside help from a trained coach.  Conflict coaching can be used before and after to mediation help parties navigate a meeting arising from a disagreement in a more effective way.

Having the option for voluntary mediation in your company’s grievance procedures should be part of your strategy in managing conflict.  Whilst this might be an internally trained mediator, there are benefits from using external mediation, including impartiality.  

Everyone within the company should know how the company will manage conflict or where people can seek support. This shows employees are supported and the company acknowledges that there may be situations that arise that require some form of intervention, including mediation, and that there is a process in place to deal with it.

Whilst the rise of potential complaints and grievances may be created by outside factors, the company that can address conflict resolution and future-proofs itself ahead of the game can minimise the most extreme outcomes, as well as managing employee well-being.

For a confidential conversation on how HR Think can help you develop a conflict management strategy,  conflict coaching and/or mediation, please email liz.jewer@hrthink.co.uk or call on 07803 007591

Liz Jewer is a qualified coach, trained in mediation and workplace investigations, and a Fellow of the CIPD.  

Further Reading: CIPD Report, January 2020 – Managing conflict in the modern workplace; www.acas.org.uk/managing-individual-conflict-in-the-contemporary-british-workplace