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Ending workplace battles before they erupt into war

Resolving disputes is a delicate balance that can easily tip in the wrong direction

By Jeffrey R. Smith

One of the challenges HR professionals and those in management often face is when there is strife between people at work. It can be a delicate situation, listening to and trying to effectively deal with a dispute while keeping the interests of each side as well as the employer in mind.

If a dispute isn’t effectively dealt with, it can lead to larger problems that can affect productivity and create legal liability, and possibly even drive away talent.

One way to settle disputes is mediation. In a unionized workplace, this would normally be done with an independent arbitrator or mediator when an employee or a union files a grievance. In a non-unionized workplace, a manager or supervisor could take the role of mediator, or the employer could bring in someone from outside. If a settlement can be reached, the hope is the dispute is truly resolved and everyone involved can move on. But employers must be careful that everyone truly does move on, or else the pattern of strife will continue.

A British Columbia employer recently found out that more difficulty can ensure if some members of management take things too personally and can’t keep their mouths shut after a dispute is settled.

The company in question faced a harassment and discrimination complaint from a couple of female employees related to the opportunities they faced. A mediation was held and a settlement was reached.

However, when one of the employees returned to work after the settlement, her supervisor — who had been involved in the dispute but not named in the complaint — made comments to the employee about how the matter had affected him. He made the comments at a group meeting in front of other employees, and the employee also said he made similar ones to her at her workstation.

The employee felt the supervisor — and perhaps, by association, the employer — hadn’t truly put things behind him and the settlement didn’t really resolve things. She felt singled out in the meeting and that the harassment was continuing.

An arbitrator found that while the supervisor didn’t intend to harm or harassment the employee with his comments, but it was inappropriate for him to make the unsolicited remarks after things at been resolved. The effect on the employee was that she continued to feel discriminated against so, as a result, the dispute was allowed to continue after the settlement. The employer was ordered to pay the harassed employee $2,000 for injury to dignity and feelings, and the arbitrator suggested the supervisor be trained on how to appropriately deal with his feelings that stemmed from the dispute: see I.G. Machine and Fibres Ltd. and IAMAW, Local 692 (Henderson), Re, 2015 CarswellBC 1034 (B.C. Arb.).

Settlements can be effective tools in dealing with workplace disputes, but they are only as effective as the personnel who follow through with them. In the case above, the supervisor didn’t know how to handle the aftermath of a dispute and he let it get to him – which resulted in further harassment of the original complainant. The arbitrator’s suggestion of giving him proper training was a good idea – it’s too bad the employer didn’t think of it before. It’s something HR professionals should be aware of in the wake of a workplace dispute – so delicate situations don’t teeter on the brink of workplace war.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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