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Struggling to Manage Conflict?

Elizabeth Aylott, author of Employee Relations and Employment Law, discusses dispute resolution in the workplace.

In the UK, the traditional employee relations landscape has changed. This has altered how disputes are managed, leaving Line Managers isolated and insecure, as they deal with individual disputes or have to relate with experienced Trade Union Representatives.

Trade Unions have become less powerful, Human Resource (HR) professionals have concentrated on getting recognition on the Board, focusing on strategic issues and devolving conflict management to the Line Manager, who lacks the confidence or at times the skills to manage this. Whilst at times Business Partners provide coaching and advice, the centralisation of HR means that this can be less common, and the Line Manager continues to struggle with this aspect of their role.

Simplified discipline and grievance policies revised in 2009, in line with the Acas Code of Practice should have helped but, in fact, these lead Line Managers and HR professionals to take a very rule-based approach concerned with any legal recourse that the individual employee may take. This may protect the employer in the Employment Tribunal, making it more likely that they will win any claim against them, but may not prevent them having to pay for the legal consultation if a claim is made.

Employers and employees are encouraged by Government to resolve disputes in the workplace, and the Early Conciliation process which commenced in May 2014 is meant to mop up any unresolved disputes before they need the services of the Employment Tribunal. But a purely procedural approach in the workplace may not prevent issues turning into legal action. We know from our experience outside of work that disputes cannot always be resolved by procedural and rule-based approaches.

In some organizations, where there are routine processes and workers have less autonomy, rules are relatively clear and easy to maintain. In these organizations both discipline or grievance issues are more common as the rules are clear and injustice is easy to see.

Whilst the traditional industries have this profile, so do both the retail sector and the call centre industry. In organizations where work processes are flexible and employees use their discretion, it may be harder to apply rules as effectively. It is in those organizations where the line is unclearly defined, or where problems have been ignored, that there may be fewer discipline issues but they may escalate.

Grievances can be more common in those organizations where discretion and flexibility are needed. Yet many of us work in organisations which needs creativity, innovation, autonomy and flexibility and therefore the Line Manager’s role in dispute resolution is more difficult.

The role of Line Managers is obviously becoming more challenging. Line Managers have often attempted to have a “quiet word” to try to resolve issues before procedures are enacted. Line Managers know their team and listening to them can prevent small misunderstanding becoming big issues. But the range of litigation that employees can claim makes Line Managers fearful and some HR professionals may be concerned about any unrecorded meetings. Another approach is mediation which is increasingly being used where both parties consent.  Mediation is seen to be suitable for a range of issues such as discrimination, bullying, disputes concerning conditions of employment and discipline, and not just those areas which are traditionally more suitable such as relationship breakdown.

Employee relations is so much more than dispute resolution, and dispute resolution is so much more than following the discipline and grievance policy. HR professionals need to be alert to the changing employee relations environment, not just those working in the employee relations field, but Business Partners at the heart of the organisation, Learning & Development professionals and HR policy advisors. Line Managers need support to manage conflict and HR has a responsibility to support them, with advice, coaching and mentoring and policies that enable a degree of flexibility for more innovative dispute resolution, such as mediation.

And those who are not working in HR, still need an understanding of how to manage this devolved role. Acas (2014) recognises that Line Managers can find difficult conversations messy and in this new world with little Trade Union representation we need to ensure that employees have a voice and Line Managers are not left to manage disputes without the resources or support to do so.