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Grievance Grief

can a formal process make workplace conflict worse?

“Jack has given me nothing but stress this past year. His work is poor, he’s lazy and he’s turning the team against me. As his line manager, I tried to support him and then in spite of all my time and effort, I’m the one who ends up being investigated.”

This was Gill at the start of our initial meeting prior to a proposed mediation with team member Jack. Jack had raised a grievance against Gill claiming bullying behaviour. Both had subsequently endured a bruising process in which Jack’s case had not been proven. “I hoped that once he was told the outcome we’d move on, but then he appealed – I couldn’t believe it.” Gill was angry and stressed by the whole process, but agreed to the appeal recommendation to try mediation.

Jack was angry and frustrated as well and was so affected by Gill’s behaviour and the whole grievance process that he had had to take two weeks off work with stress.

“I don’t know if she’s just totally unaware of how intimidating and rude she is or if it’s a deliberate tactic to get me to leave. She says I’m not performing but the truth is she micromanages me and criticises when I don’t do something exactly her way.”

As a professional mediator, for me this is a fairly typical case. Two people work closely together in a highly pressured environment; a piece of work doesn’t go quite right and before anybody knows it, the conflict escalation cycle has started with Gill looking out for more ‘evidence’ of Jack’s ‘poor performance’ and Jack reacting negatively to the ‘additional stress’ and picking up on any adverse comment and action from Gill.

As I say, this is the kind of scenario that occurs regularly in workplaces. So if you were the HR Manager approached by Jack wanting to raise a grievance against Gill what would you do? Would you take the time to talk it through with him and explore what has happened? Would you help him understand all the options open to him including the formal grievance process and what is involved including possible outcomes? Or would you simply hand him the grievance policy and tell him where to send the email? Hopefully it wouldn’t be the latter. Yet many of the post grievance cases I deal with leave me wondering what help and advice was given for example when it becomes clear that they haven’t even sat down together and had a proper conversation about their issues. Or that their manager has simply referred them to HR and not tried to support them to resolve the problem.

Our formal HR processes are necessary and often valuable tools but used incorrectly they can be extremely harmful. Especially in relationship cases the situation is rarely black and white, ie. all one person’s ‘fault’. Rather there’s normally a clash of personalities, different working styles etc. compounded by poor communication. Is the best way to resolve the situation to force the people involved to gather evidence against the other, to build up their story and entrench their position? Because that’s what had happened with Jack and Gill. They work in very different ways and when things started to go wrong they didn’t discuss this, they avoided it and got frustrated and angry with the other. Had they had help to resolve their issues informally – to have the conversation they couldn’t have themselves, they would not have endured the stress and emotional cost of the formal process and the company wouldn’t have incurred the financial cost. Maybe their manager could have helped them, or HR, or I could have been brought in to mediate.

My experience suggests we jump too quickly to formal processes before fully exploring informal ways to resolve workplace disputes. We can save time, effort, stress and money by nipping conflict in the bud. Not only is this good sense, it’s what ACAS tells us we should do. The ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures says to only raise matters formally if we have not been able to resolve them informally. And if it is in the ACAS Code it is more than likely in your own company Grievance Procedure. So let’s make sure all informal means have been used before going down the formal route.

And what happened to Jack and Gill? We had a successful mediation and they were able to discuss their concerns and find a way forward that worked for both of them. But it could have been so much less painful. In their situation going down the formal route had definitely made the conflict worse.


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