Nipping conflict in the bud

Rich Jones , Senior Adviser and Collective Conciliator

Rich works on a daily basis with employers, trade unions and staff forum representatives, advising on good practice, delivering training and helping them solve employment relations problems. He has worked for Acas for 16 years and is also a visiting lecturer at Leeds University.

I’ve dealt with conflict in one form or another for most of my career, but I was recently asked for one top tip for handling workplace disputes. My answer was simple – create a culture where serious disputes don’t arise because they are dealt with speedily and at the lowest possible level. 

The freedom to speak openly

To create this culture:

  • employees need to be prepared to ‘say it as it is’ in a tactful and professional way, and 
  • employers need to ‘take it as you find’, no matter how unpalatable any perceived criticism may seem

This approach works because it allows a dialogue to take place – and in my experience, most disputes are either the result of genuine misunderstandings or avoidable relationship breakdowns.

I know how scared employees can be to say what they really think to managers, and how defensive many employers can be when staff do speak up. I recall one occasion when I was running a workshop at a company and all hell broke loose. 

The union reps were complaining the employer never shared important information with them, and the managers were adamant that they did. To back up their claim the union reps provided an example of some maintenance staff who had changed shift patterns without their knowledge. But to their surprise it turned out the management reps were equally in the dark.

After a bit of discussion, it transpired that the maintenance staff had suggested changing their shifts and their manager had been happy with this, so they reached a local agreement – but neither told their counterparts further up the line.

Unfortunately, the poor employment relations climate meant there wasn’t enough trust for a dialogue to take place until things reached bursting point.

Don’t let the past cast a shadow

And the same is true of many complaints made by one member of staff about another. When I was a complaints’ investigator, I often found an all too predictable pattern of behaviour:

  • a genuine fallout had occurred, often years before, over a workplace issue
  • because this issue was not addressed at the time, it became the trigger for a long line of subsequent disagreements
  • every fresh problem was seen as further proof that an individual was being wronged by a colleague

A classic example of this is the employee who has a heated performance discussion with their manager. This sours their relationship and means that future interactions are viewed with suspicion and fear. Often all that’s needed is for managers to be a bit more tactful and employees a little more receptive to constructive criticism. 

Acas research 'Seeking better solutions: tackling bullying and ill-treatment' found that "organisational climates or cultures can institutionalise and 'normalise' ill-treatment and bullying behaviours".

It’s time we worked on the one ingredient that no workplace should be without – positive relationships between individuals based upon trust, respect and emotional intelligence.