How a new conflict resolution process improved openness at Aviva

Employees at Aviva are encouraged to have informal conversations before raising a formal grievance.
Image: Aviva

While many organisations might be tightening up their grievance processes, Aviva is taking a more informal approach to conflict resolution. The firm tells Ashleigh Webber how it is empowering its staff to have open and honest conversations to tackle issues.

Although, on the whole, conflict at work is rare – only 3% of organisations say it’s a common occurrence, according to Acas – it can be a huge distraction for employees, their managers and HR teams. Not only does it put workplace relationships under strain, it can affect morale and create stress, and potentially harms productivity and staff turnover.

While movements such as #MeToo might have prompted employers to revisit their policies for raising and handling grievances, insurer Aviva has opted for a more informal approach which it says has resulted in fewer cases being escalated and a reduction in the number of claims being raised at all.

“We know there is always going to be conflict in the workplace, so we wanted to do something that drove open and honest conversations,” head of employee relations and global policy, Anthony Fitzpatrick, tells Personnel Today. “Often it’s those little niggles that people don’t talk about and before you know it there’s a huge issue and a breakdown in the relationship between the parties.”

Like many organisations, Aviva used to deal with conflict through a formal grievance process, which Fitzpatrick says can damage the employees’ relationship further. As part of a wider programme to improve transparency across the company, it wanted to move away from such a “bureaucratic” process and instead encourage staff to handle problems in an informal manner as soon as they arise.

“This process was about moving away from individual and collective grievances to resolving things speedily and informally,” he says. “The more formal and bureaucratic the process is, sometimes it can prevent people from coming forward with an issue.”

Sometimes if it’s just a misunderstanding, a formal grievance doesn’t necessarily create the right environment to clear it up – an informal conversation can,” – Anthony Fitzpatrick

It launched its “total conflict management system”, which was developed with dispute resolution consultancy TCM, in July 2018. Since then Aviva has seen an 11% reduction in the number of formal claims being raised and 43% of staff say they are now more comfortable raising issues earlier and through less formal means.

Staff are encouraged to raise any issues at an earlier stage, before they become a major problem. Firstly, aggrieved employees are encouraged to contact its advice team, which sits within its people function, to outline what their issue is. The advice team then suggest next steps based on the issue raised – for example, having an informal chat with their line manager, or a facilitated conversation between the two parties.

If after this point, the situation has not been resolved, the advice team will begin a formal mediation process, using an in-house mediator. The parties will be split into different rooms to discuss their issues with the mediator, who will then bring them into a room together to work through the problem.

The final stage of the process is a traditional grievance procedure, which Fitzpatrick says is used as a last resort and only in situations where the relationship between two employees has broken down completely.

Removing bureaucracy

But even the final stage of this process is less bureaucratic than it once was, he suggests, “In Aviva we’ve taken the word ‘grievance’ out of our corporate lexicon. We now call it the ‘formal resolution meeting’ to move away from this ‘grievance’ mind set to a ‘resolution’ mind set.”

Fitzpatrick says the option of a facilitated conversation has been popular among staff, although it has taken a while for leaders to adjust to this new approach.

“I think it has challenged our leaders to think differently about their role and how they can interact with staff. I think it’s brought a diversity of thought and challenged established ways of doing things,” he says.

Staff are also using the telephone helpline to get advice about how to approach a difficult conversation with their manager to get the best outcome for both parties.

“This is about equals coming together around a table to discuss something and hopefully get to a resolution. Sometimes if it’s just a misunderstanding, a formal grievance doesn’t necessarily create the right environment to clear it up – an informal conversation can,” says Fitzpatrick.

“We are empowering all people regardless of hierarchy to feel that they can have more open, honest and regular conversations, without fear of recrimination.”

The fact that Aviva has seen an 11% reduction in the number of issues being raised highlights how the process has changed employees’ mind set about how problems can be dealt with.

Union involvement

He says much of the programme’s success has been down to the heavy involvement from its trade unions, especially in how the changes were communicated to staff. Unite issued a notice to members in tandem with the corporate announcement, which Fitzpatrick says showed staff it came with the union’s endorsement.

“The trade union representatives are often on the frontline of dealing with their members’ queries. We’ve worked with them to highlight that there is a different way and I think that’s been very successful for Aviva, staff and the unions,” he says.

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As well as the obvious employee engagement benefits the new approach has brought, Aviva has also seen improved performance from its staff. By stripping out formal processes and time-consuming preparations for grievance meetings, staff have more time to do the tasks that add value to their roles.

Fitzpatrick says: “In our view, the simpler the process, the quicker we can resolve this, the sooner we can get back to doing our day job and we can be focused and bring our whole selves to work.

We are empowering all people regardless of hierarchy to feel that they can have more open, honest and regular conversations, without fear of recrimination,” – Anthony Fitzpatrick

“The ultimate winner is the customer because we’ve got more time to deal with them, but as a manager I’ve got more time to talk to my team about things like career development, progression and learning.”

Introducing the conflict management system has also created new opportunities for its staff. Employees who volunteered to become a mediator were trained in the skills they needed, which Fitzpatrick hopes will help with their career development.

He says the grievance process now dovetails with the company’s values and shows staff and job candidates that Aviva is a transparent and honest organisation. “We are embarking on a period of cultural transformation. We are changing the way in which the employee and employer relationship develops and really trying to drive more openness.”

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