Time to grow up and resolve our disputes

I woke up yesterday morning, shaved, got dressed, argued with the kids and had a row with the wife. We could do with a new dispute resolution procedure in our house.

There were 115,000 applications to employment tribunals by disgruntled employees last year, up 17 per cent on the year before. The latest Managing Conflict at Work Survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that disputes in the workplace are definitely increasing.

The press coverage of conflicts in recent weeks – London Under-ground staff, Heathrow airport tanker drivers, Gatwick baggage handlers and so on – are just the tip of the iceberg. The average employer in the survey had 30 formal disciplinary cases, nine grievances and three employment tribunal applications to deal with last year.

Disputes are time-consuming and costly, with organisations spending on average 10.5 days per case dealing with disciplinary and grievance issues, and 12.5 days preparing for a tribunal case.

On 1 October, the Government introduced its new statutory dispute resolution regulations, with the aim of reducing the pressure on the tribunals system by encouraging the resolution of disputes in the workplace. And despite the bleating of employers’ organisations that this is further over-regulation coming in on ‘red tape Friday’, the regulations were generally welcomed by the 1,200 organisations in our survey.

All already had some form of procedure in place for handling disputes, and the majority felt that the legislation would help to reduce the number of tribunals. But they were much less confident about their own abilities to address disputes internally.

Far and away the biggest cause of disputes is not pay, working conditions or discrimination, but the personal behaviour and conduct of line managers and employees. While the blame is often directed at fee-hungry lawyers and obstreperous union officials, only a third of HR staff rated their line managers’ abilities to avoid and manage conflicts as ‘good’.

Many feel that existing procedures are based on a confrontational model of employee relations, which, as one respondent put it, is often “emotionally distressing, usually ending in a lose/lose situation”.

According to Dorothy Brown, head of HR at the Department of Constitutional Affairs: “UK organisations do not understand the value of resolving disputes through a joint approach”.

So if it’s not just about procedures, how do you create happy and harmonious employee relations? The CIPD survey highlights two important solutions: training and mediation.

A local school has gone beyond the politically correct policy document on bullying that virtually all schools and employers now publish. The children are taught about the value of respecting others’ views and a trained counsellor helps address problem situations. As one girl put it: “It helped us to be more grown up and learn how to deal with each other – we’re civil and don’t shout now.”

Only a quarter of employers in our study provided mediation and dispute resolution training. Yet those that do experienced just 22 formal disciplinary cases last year, compared to the average of 49 for the rest.

According to Fiona Colquhoun at the Centre for Alternative Dispute Resolution, training can integrate conflict resolution skills into working relationships. “Mediation skills are life skills,” she said.

At the Department of Constitutional Affairs, a trial period involving the use of eight trained in-house mediators saw the number of disputes fall, and the average duration of cases reduced from 84 to 25 days.

As one CIPD survey participant put it: “We need to provide independent support to both accuser and accused, to change traditional attitudes.” Another participant said that organisations need to “change behaviours, to nip problems in the bud before they escalate”.

When I got to work yesterday, it was a team development day for my group at the CIPD. We all filled out something called the Thomas Kilman Conflict Management Questionnaire. A number of us were very strong on the ‘competing’ and ‘avoiding’ styles that the instrument profiles, but as a team we need to develop our ‘collaborative’ style of working.

The CIPD survey suggests that there are plenty of other UK organisations that should be undergoing similar training and working towards more joint and ‘grown up’ solutions. “Children, come here and fill in this questionnaire for me.”

The CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition runs in Harrogate this week from 27-29 October 2004
GO TO www.cipd.co.uk/annualconf-ex

 By Duncan Brown, assistant director general, CIPD

Comments are closed.