Workplace conflict today - 4 key lessons from the CIPD



When I first came across workplace mediation some years ago I was shocked and a bit embarrassed at my lack of awareness.  More importantly why were we as a FTSE 10 company not using mediation as an option alongside our formal HR processes?  We quickly did something about it but it has remained a puzzle to me as to why the HR profession has been so slow to latch on to mediation – or a mediation style approach – as a means of conflict resolution.  I was therefore very interested to see the CIPD has recently published two reports focusing very much on this area.  The reports are well worth reading in full but in this blog I’ve pulled out what I see as four key learnings from the two reports and have taken the liberty of adding my own perspective.quote1

The reports look at the issue of workplace conflict from two different angles.  The March 2015 report ‘Conflict Management: a shift in direction?’ is based on employer research and looks at how employers are managing conflict differently, in particular in light of recent legislation changes.  ‘Getting under the skin of workplace conflict: tracing the experience of employees’ (April 2015) uses survey data which focuses on the employee perspective and provides valuable insight into how employees experience conflict.*  Despite the different perspectives, there is good correlation in the conclusions regarding overall direction for how workplace conflict is handled in the future.

1. Legislation supports the direction rather than providing the solution

The government has introduced a range of measures in recent years to reduce the number of Employment Tribunal cases – notably ET fees, ACAS Early Conciliation and Settlement Agreements.  The CIPD report shows though that employers have not significantly altered their approach to conflict as a result of these changes.  Yet, there is no doubt the changes have reduced the number of tribunal cases (a 70% drop since July 2013) and the ACAS Early Conciliation service has been positively received.  However, these changes only really affect what happens at the end of a conflict situation.  Once you have got to the point of considering going to an Employment Tribunal and putting in a claim to ACAS, there is very little chance of repairing the working relationship and the process will instead be focused on ending it as painlessly as possible for all those involved.  What the changes do indicate is the desire to have conflict addressed as early as possible.  For anyone involved in conflict resolution this makes absolute sense as the earlier conflict is addressed the less chance it will escalate and the greater chance of resolution.  So, as the CIPD report identifies, employers are making changes by addressing conflict at an earlier stage and by using additional approaches such as mediation.  As such, we can see the regulatory changes not as driving change, but supporting change, or at best influencing the direction of change.

2. Different resolution processes suit different conflict types

A key conclusion of ‘Getting under the skin’ report is that it is not sufficient to rely on formal processes alone:  “our data is consistent with the view that they do not help in many types of conflict.  In many situations, a system that relies on grievance and discipline procedures alone will do little good, as it will simply mean that conflict festers until it escalates to a serious level.”  This makes absolute sense when we consider that according to the survey the most common cause of conflict in the workplace is differences in personality or styles of working, ie relationship conflict.  Whilst formal procedures are essential when a binary output is required – eg he or she did or didn’t do something – when a relationship is at the heart of the conflict a more nuanced approach is needed which can address the underlying needs of those involved.  As such, organisations need to have options such as mediation available alongside the formal options, what the ‘Getting under the skin’ report describes as ‘a collective suite of approaches’.  However, what I see when I talk about mediation with HR teams is the question of when to use the formal vs the informal option.  This is where HR professionals can really add value, using their expertise to understand the situation and advise management which course is likely to be the best approach.  Whether HR feel confident enough to exercise this judgement is another matter.  The ‘Shift in direction’ report makes a helpful suggestion in this respect, proposing that further guidance around positioning of mediation could be given in a revised ACAS Code of Practice.

3. Greater awareness of mediation needed

Both reports give figures on the use of mediation but from different perspectives.  The employer perspective presented in ‘Shift in direction’ suggests that mediation has been used by a third of employers in the last 12 months (split 24% internal mediation, 9% external).  However, of the employees experiencing conflict surveyed in ‘Getting under the skin’, only 1.5% reported using mediation.  The difference is justified as the ‘Shift in direction’ figures represent any use of mediation in the company.  However, what struck me was that ‘Getting under the skin’ quotes a figure of 46% of the sample believing that mediation was an effective approach to dealing with conflict – far in excess of the figure that actually used it.  The report states this could be due to lack of awareness, not thinking of it, not being referred or not having access.  In my experience, it is the lack of awareness amongst HR that is the key issue.  Whilst most HR professionals have heard of mediation, far less are truly aware of what it actually is, how it works and the benefits.  Greater focus from the CIPD as the professional body for HR through these reports and further research will help increase awareness.  We should be working towards HR having knowledge and awareness of mediation as an equal professional requirement alongside knowledge of formal processes.

4. Skills development for HR and Line Management is critical

Whilst the reports confirm that use of professional external mediation remains low, there is a clear recognition that the mediation style approach is one that is vital for the workplace.  This is confirmed in figures in ‘Shift in direction’ which indicate that the method of dealing with workplace conflict that has increased most in the past 12 months is training line managers  in managing conflict – an increase of 56%.  This is a really positive sign as line managers are the front line in dealing with conflict.  If they have the competence and confidence to identify and manage conflict then the damage of escalating conflict can be largely avoided.  This ties in with my own experience as both a line manager and mediator.  As a manager it is natural to fear and therefore seek to avoid conflict with team members.  However once managers are given the skills and tools to have the necessary conversations their confidence is boosted and avoidance is far less an issue.  Likewise for HR, it should be a fundamental part of the HR professionals’ skillset that they develop the key skills of a mediation style approach.  They don’t have to be trained as full mediators but they do need to know the framework and the skills they need to adopt.  Many believe they are mediating when in fact they are telling the employees what they should do which can potentially worsen the situation.  Without developing skills in this area, as ‘Shift in direction’ finds, HR managers are likely “to be nervous about departing from grievance procedures”.

quote2The CIPD has produced two excellent reports which give evidence of what I’m witnessing on a daily basis, namely that there is growing awareness of the need for multiple tools in our conflict management toolbox.  An increasing use of mediation and a mediation style approach gives organisations greater flexibility and an enhanced chance of positive outcome, especially when dealing with relationship type conflicts.  I welcome these reports and look forward to further CIPD research in this area.

*“Conflict Management: a shift in direction?” – CIPD Research report, March 2015

Getting under the skin of workplace conflict: Tracing the experiences of employees” – CIPD Survey report, April 2015

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