Is workplace conflict more prevalent and how is it best managed?

ADC has been at the forefront of workplace conflict resolution for nearly 30 years. In the first of its new Bulletin series on workplace issues, Keith Welsh (Mediator and Owner of Velocer Music – ICEHOUSE/Savage Garden) speaks with Salli Browning (Mediator, Workplace Consultant and music aficionado) about workplace dispute resolution. Read more

  1. Our media is filled with stories about rising Workers Compensation and indemnity costs, bullying complaints and workplace conflict. Are things getting worse in our workplaces?

Certainly recent statistics show that bullying complaints have risen significantly to the point that it has became part of the workplace legislative framework.  We know that Workers Compensation injury claims, which attribute causes to the behaviour of others at work, have also been steadily increasing.  This is causing significant concern to businesses and organisations, as well as to individual employees, who believe they have been impacted by the behaviour of others in the workplace. It is also resulting in increasing costs to businesses and individuals associated with these claims.

The statistics reflect our changing workplaces, as well as probably reflecting a change in capturing metrics to some extent.  However, I think it is still difficult to say if this is an indicator things are getting worse across the board, but it does mean that there are some things workplaces need to address more effectively- as a matter of priority.  A lot of the workplace situations that end up as bullying statistics in complaints and claims would be more correctly assessed as being symptoms of conflict within a work relationship and addressed accordingly.

It seems to me that it is almost impossible to avoid conflict in a workplace.  Workplaces by their nature are most often made up of a diverse group of people with a wide variety of needs and expectations. I think the key is to recognise the likelihood of workplace issues arising at some point and manage them as effectively and productively as possible.

So whether or not behaviour is getting worse in the workplace, I think what is getting worse is that any kind of distress or discomfort in the workplace often ends up being labelled as ‘bullying’.  In trying to seek relief from workplace distress employees are left with only a couple of avenues to change the situation.

  1. What do you see are the costs of workplace disputes to an organisation or business?

Costs to organisations, businesses and individuals are significant and many are hidden. The most difficult cost to quantify that I see is the enormous distress that people in the workplace go through that could have been prevented.

Material costs to an organisation include the impact on productivity and performance as well as health and safety e.g. work accident and/or error rate, absenteeism, Workers Compensation premiums, staff turnover and possible legal action.  In addition there are the costs involved in investigating complaints and there are the costs to individuals such as stress, anxiety and depression.

Hidden costs include the significant time it takes to attend to workplace issues by staff, HR and management.  This opportunity cost to the organisation can be high; with lost time that could have been spent on initiatives to improve productivity, performance and wellbeing.  As well, there is a significant impact on wellbeing and morale within a business or organisation.

  1. What can organisations do to prevent or effectively deal with workplace disputes?

While a lot of organisations and companies are trying hard to address the situation with the information that is available to them, I think it is time to take a more cohesive and systematic approach, as well as a perhaps more realistic one.  I recognise that doing this in a workplace can be challenging.  It is a lot easier to develop a consistent approach through operating procedures than it is to promote productive workplace relationships and manage conflict, disputes and behaviour effectively.  However, from the work that I have done I believe that it is possible. For example, a few of the things that an organisation can do are:

  • Establish more meaningful conflict and complaint handling protocols and policies from the local level upwards and including the HR function.
  • Train HR staff, managers, supervisors, employee representatives and specialist personnel such as Return to Work Coordinators in interventions such as mediation. These days it is essential that HR personnel, and managers in high conflict prone environments, complete mediation training.
  • Educate all levels of staff in protocols to raise issues productively within their organisation. This includes skills that can be applied in a workplace relationship in a realistic way.
  • Access independent expertise to assess conflict situations and provide recommendations.
  1. What are some of the skills that managers, HR practitioners and worker representatives can benefit from learning or improving?

In general I think everyone in a workplace who is required to manage or intervene in workplace issues would benefit from learning an effective framework to approach conflict and complaints situations.  Intervening effectively in workplace issues can require a sophisticated set of skills, beyond being able to bring authority to bear on the situation.  Rather than expecting every employee to have these skill sets it is often more useful to train all levels of management and employees in implementing a framework or pathway to follow if presented with a situation.

Having said that, there are a number of conflict resolution micro-skills that everyone can benefit from learning; good training will show how skills can be realistically applied in a particular situation and not just remain as a nice theory that doesn’t really work in practice.

Mediation training is one kind of training that can provide an effective framework for managing disputes and will also provide training in many of those essential micro skills.

  1. What are the benefits to an individual who learns workplace mediation skills, personally and to their organisation?

As well as learning actual skills to assist them in managing workplace relationships more effectively, mediation provides a clear framework or an approach to draw upon where necessary.  I believe this can bring a greater level of comfort and confidence in managing situations.  And of course there are numerous flow-on effects from being able to more productively handle challenging workplace situations. For businesses it can reduce costs overall and increase productivity and for individuals it can assist with professional and career development as well as create a more positive and less stressful work experience.  Mediation training can also lead to National Accreditation and this creates a powerful professional development opportunity for the individual and the organisation.