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Recession drives increase in Workplace Conflict
What role does HR play in managing conflict and when should it intervene in a dispute ?
by Karen Higginbottom | 18th Jun 2012
Workplace conflict has increased since the recession
The workplace, like society, is full of very different personalities and working styles and this often results in conflict. What role does HR play in managing conflict in the workplace and when should it intervene in a dispute?
It is official. Workplace conflict has increased since the recession. A survey on conflict management carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) last year revealed that half the organisations questioned had increased their use of disciplinary action, grievance procedures and mediation in the last two years.
Mike Emmott, employee relations' adviser for the CIPD, said it was no surprise that conflict had increased during this time. "We're in a recession and there is more scope for aggravation in the workplace. You have this sense that people are more aware of the risks of being found to be under-performing and I think people are more stressed, dissatisfied and job-insecure."
There are a multitude of reasons why workplace conflict has risen during the recession, according to David Liddle, co-founder of The TCM Group, a mediation training provider.
"There are issues related to performance management, and where there is a lot of change and re-structuring going on in an organisation, then it also results in a lot of stress and anxiety about job security."
Workplace conflict can sometimes arise from managers having had insufficient training in how to handle difficult conversations, particularly around performance issues, Liddle said. "A lot of those difficult conversations with their employees can go wrong and this creates stress and a climate of fear." He said that workplace conflict could also be caused by personality clashes between people with different working styles.
"Where you have two strong personalities in a team and there are different opinions about the direction of the team or how the team is being managed, this can all create conflict. Those kinds of clashes of personality are at the centre of conflict," Liddle said. "Conflict is often a breakdown of communication and a failure to engage in a meaningful dialogue."
Binna Kandola, co-founder of business psychologists Pearn Kandola, believed that there were essentially two types of conflict: task-related conflict and personality-related conflict. "The first type of conflict can be quite good and the second one is bad. If you're arguing about how a task is done, then this can be quite productive as it leads to different ways of doing tasks."
One way of resolving conflict in the workplace is through the use of mediation. Several financial services firms, such as Lloyds Banking Group and Deutsche Bank, have trained employees to act as internal mediators to resolve disputes in the workplace. The CIPD survey found that more than half the organisations surveyed had used mediation to resolve conflict. "Mediation is far better than going through a costly grievance procedure. It's a technique that is best used before positions have become polarised," Emmott said. "In the case of personality clashes, mediation can be very effective as it's asking people to face up to their own feelings."
Not all organisations offer internal or external mediation services to their employees, however. Liddle recommended that those employees who were unlucky enough to be the recipient of confrontational behaviour from a work colleague needed to nip the dispute in the bud before it escalated into a full-blown confrontation that affected the whole team. "You need to find the space and time to have a private chat with the problematic colleague. Avoid using blaming language and don't make personal attacks but rather talk about the problems to be solved and never use email to discuss your feelings or raise your grievances," Liddle advised.
The CIPD survey found that HR professionals were more in demand than ever to help resolve workplace conflict. Two in three organisations reported that troubleshooting by their HR departments had gone up, reflecting the greater volume of disciplinary and grievance cases. Nearly half the organisations surveyed had resorted to disciplinary action to deal with workplace conflict in the last two years.
When should HR intervene in workplace conflict?
It can, however, be difficult for HR to know exactly when to intervene in situations where conflict has arisen. Emmott said that HR had a vital role to play in helping line managers to address workplace conflict. "HR can train line managers in being aware of what's happening around them and to confront problems when they surface," he told Thomson Reuters.
He said that HR was often seen as "picking up the pieces" when line managers failed to deal with workplace conflict. "For the good HR professionals, the ability to mediate is a core skill and it's useful to step in when managers are not dealing with conflict in an effective way."
Emmott added that a few large financial services organisations were actively piloting in-house mediation. "They are training their own employees whether they are front-line staff, supervisors or union representatives and this is a big area of expansion. There are lots of spin-offs from offering this type of training, such as raising the profile of managers' training and knowing how you can best deal with the issues as they arise. Quite a few organisations are using in-house mediation to emphasis the idea of a no-blame culture and getting individuals to take responsibility for their behaviour."
There may be hope on the horizon, however. The CIPD conflict management survey found that more and more organisations were training line managers to handle difficult conversations. Liddle pointed out that not all conflict in the workplace was destructive. "Conflict can promote real change and be transformative if managers manage conflict effectively."
Management time costs
Indeed, the cost of not dealing in conflict has damaging repercussions for organisations. The number of days of management and HR time spent on managing both disciplinary and grievance cases has gone up since 2007, from 13 to 18 days (discipline) and from nine to 14.4 days (grievance), according to the CIPD's report . "Our view is that the grievance procedure is a last resort and it tends to polarise positions, and there are no winners when you go down this route," Emmott said.
"You really need to tackle workplace conflict early on as it can be a major distraction for managers and damage employee relations."
Top tips for handling workplace conflict
- First, try to reason with the person who is being aggressive or confrontational. Challenge them on their behaviour, but do not make it personal and talk about the impact of their behaviour. If they are prepared to listen, then progress can be made in resolving the conflict.
- HRs should look for allies in the workplace. If the HR representative is new to the organisation there may be a power difference in the relationship and it may be more difficult for them to sort it out on their own.
Notes to Editors
- TCM is a leading provider of workplace, employment, business and consumer mediation services. They work with organisations across the UK, Europe, Asia and the Middle East to develop constructive, effective and sustainable remedies for conflicts and disputes.
- The company trains over 1000 individuals in the art of mediation each year. This includes HR professionals, business leaders and other employees who are committed to improving the way that they resolve workplace and business disputes.
- TCM delivers mediation services to an unrivalled list of some of the world’s leading brands, including Lloyds Banking Group, BT, The Arcadia Group, Marks & Spencer, Vodafone, HSBC and The Co-operative.
- David Liddle, CEO of the TCM Group, regularly comments on mediation, dispute resolution and labour relations issues in the media including Sky News, BBC News 24, Daybreak, BBC Radio and various trade press.
- TCM has created and sponsors the first UK award for Innovation in Dispute Resolution in conjunction with Personnel Today.
- For press and media enquiries, please contact Panos Papakostis on 020 7404 3195 or E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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