Blog by Jai Jayaraman
The all too common view is that, as conflict involves people – talking – and meetings, it must be down to HR! But taking this perspective does not always enable the healthy and timely management of difficult situations at work. Very often, problems between colleagues brew and simmer without exploding, so do not even get to the stage where HR is asked to intervene. Yet the time spent by colleagues briefing against each other, avoiding each other or simply not working productively, is costly – in terms of productivity, morale and wellbeing.
So when is it best for the line management function to be involved in resolving difficulties? At what point is it best for HR to get involved? Where do internal mediation schemes fit in? And when is external support the best option?
The case for line management
While not all employees would choose their managers as mediators, building the capability of line managers to be able to handle problems between staff and act empathetically when a difficult situation arises has significant advantages.
As a conflict management strategy, building this capability provides a level of immediacy and informality that allows problems that would otherwise escalate, to be resolved quickly and inexpensively. When done well, it can provide opportunities for growth for all involved, demonstrates transparency and a duty of care, and proves the even handedness of the manager in question. These are all qualities that help to build team bonds and strengthen working relationships.
Because too many managers do not have these skills, they either avoid the conflict, try to deal with the situation by being accommodating or controlling, or they rely on HR to resolve the matter, often when it is too late.
HR have a significant role to play
That is not to say that HR does not have a significant role to play in the constructive resolution of disputes. Quite clearly when there is a problem that requires an organisational view, or one that sits within the grievance and disciplinary framework, it is more appropriate for an HR professional to intervene. Alternatively when an employment relationship has clearly run its course and the only thing to talk about is how to leave, the HR professional with a combination of mediation and negotiation skills and understanding of settlement agreements, clearly adds value.
Internal mediation services
Internal mediation services have become popular with organisations keen to offer an informal way of resolving conflict to employees. The mediators are usually drawn from the business by application and interview, and many will include representation from HR. Depending on the skills and abilities of the mediators, internal mediation is used to resolve problems at different stages of the conflict, although they are mainly used to help with conflicts at an earlier stage. The empowering nature of mediation fits in well with health and wellbeing strategies, while the participatory nature speaks to employee engagement. Ultimately though, the business case for a mediation scheme relies on the ability to evidence a reduction in the cost of conflict to the business.
External experts bring with them just that – expertise that allow the more difficult conflicts to be addressed, such as those which seem to be intractable, where senior management are involved, or post-grievance mediation. Obviously there is a cost consideration in utilising external resources, but this is often less than the opportunity cost to the organisation.
Tackling organisational conflict should not be the domain solely of the HR function. Developing conflict management skills across the business builds conflict resilience within the organisation and, over time, can help to improve the culture by making accountability, dialogue and joint problem-solving the norm. HR has a valuable role to play in this, both by acting as practitioners in conflict resolution, and by knowing when to act as enablers, either by supporting line managers or by accessing external resources.