The flames which fuel workplace disputes

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It started off, like many disputes, with an annoying disagreement, this time over-shift patterns.

The Team Leader was asked by his manager to have that “difficult discussion” with the protagonists. Unfortunately, the Team Leader held a catalogue of opinions about the work efforts of one of them and so, from the outset, the discussion was loaded with opinions. Equity, fairness and openness waltzed out the door within minutes, and now the Manager had a labour dispute the deal with.

Over 500,000 working days have been lost across all UK industries and services in the month of March 2023 alone. Between June and December last year, 2.472 million working days were lost, with the number of days lost to strike action the highest since the time of the Thatcher government.

Add to this the 17.9 million days lost due to work-related ill-health, much of it stress related, an increase of over 30% in five years.

Workplace mediation is the calming water or fire blanket to put out many of these smouldering flames before they ignite into an inferno, burning a big hole in company profits and, too often, destroying the goodwill and mental health of the people involved.

There are particularities about every dispute; no two disputes are ever the same, exactly. But there are some common patterns to disputes – especially those low-level disputes which erupt into something much bigger.

  1. Lack of leadership and or mediation training in holding difficult conversations;
  2. Involvement of those with “vested interests”, especially pre-formed mental concepts about which party is right and which is wrong;
  3. Inadequate collection of evidence from “independent” sources;
  4. Insufficient time given to finding an agreeable solution;
  5. Lack of balance in the presentation of arguments.

Encouragingly, 75% of employers in the UK have taken some action over the past five years, including during the Pandemic, to improve mediation in the workplace. It has had a relatively high success rate; up to 80% of disputes have been settled through mediation, long before the cost of expensive barristers and solicitors kicked in. The financial costs of mediation are minute by comparison to the costs of disputes ending up in the Courts or Tribunals.

But there is more to learn by reviewing the common impediments to achieving dispute resolution:

  1. Difficult conversations between managers and team members requires an understanding of the human condition by the leader of the discussion, usually the manager. What managers often fail to realise is that their own anxieties – about how their own managers will view them if they fail – inevitably impinge upon the discussion and the outcome. The psychological and emotional strains on both parties is like an iceberg; only the tip of them is seen on the outside. If the leader or manager is not confident in the skills of emotional intelligence, the ‘mediation’ is more likely to fail than succeed.
  2. Overcoming the perception of loaded vested interests is more difficult than commonly realised. Even when an HR professional is engaged, the ‘disputant’ often inwardly holds the opinion that the ‘dispute resolver’ must be seeking for a resolution in “the best interests of the company”. This innate prejudice is very hard to overcome, without external and independent help.
  3. The collection of a wide range of “evidence”, from people not immediately involved in the dispute, is vital for its resolution. This takes time and is too frequently hurried in an attempt to get things “back to normal.” Both sides to the dispute need confidence in the process of evidence collection; both need to be engaged during the early phase of the mediation process in agreeing from where and who the evidence will be collected from. This step must not only be utterly ‘neutral’; it needs to be seen to be neutral.
  4. The ghost of the ever-ticking clock is the biggest hidden enemy of workplace mediation, even when external experts are involved. For obvious reasons, the employer wants a resolution as quickly as possible. The more the employer pushes, the greater the resistance of the “disputant”. This is tricky because it is not in anyone’s interests for the process to drift on. Equally, the dialogue between the disputing parties must be given time and space to mature – more like a fine wine than a micro-waved meal. Getting sign off to an estimated timetable, before the start of the process, is an important element to be agreed by all parties. And if it is going to take longer? Give the time! It is also important to remember that this might be the first time a disputant has been involved in mediation, and so needs examples of past cases to help set the context and timeframe. Surprises around timing never helps.
  5. Perhaps the most petrol is poured on a developing dispute when one or both sides perceive that there is a lack of balance in the presentation of arguments. Here, detailed preparation is absolutely vital. Whatever is given to one side, must be openly offered to the other: a) same time to prepare for and make the case; b) same technology support; c) same opportunity for legal or HR support; d) same opportunity to question and challenge. To resolve a dispute, and not just park it somewhere hoping it will not flair up again, there must be absolute equity in the opportunity to present the case. And there must be equity in LISTENING to the case when it has been made.

The essence of all effective mediation, whether conducted by experts or not, is an open-hearted sense that Justice will be found and will prevail. My definition of Justice in this context is: Doing the Right Thing for All, not just for some. It is an ideal to be aspired to.

With workplace disputes costing UK business over £28 Billion in 2021, working hard to secure Justice is a price worth paying.

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