Resolving workplace disputes internally

Focusing on mediation, negotiation, workplace investigations and organizational development

Resolving workplace disputes internally
Brian Kreissl



By Brian Kreissl

One of the most important roles of HR practitioners is to handle conflict and resolve disputes within organizations. This applies not only with respect to individuals, but sometimes to disputes between departments and disputes with external stakeholders such as job applicants and customers.

When it comes to internal conflict, the goal is to try to resolve disputes internally without resorting to the use of external parties or more formal dispute-resolution mechanisms. In particular, organizations generally want to avoid having employees take legal action through a court, tribunal or arbitrator, or make a complaint through a regulatory body or government agency.

That’s not to say employers should never hire an external party such as an investigator, mediator, lawyer or consultant to deal with internal conflict (particularly where specialized knowledge and expertise or impartiality are required). It also isn’t a good idea to try to stop employees from exercising their legal rights or engaging in any reprisals against individuals for making a complaint.

However, that isn’t what I am referring to here. The idea is to have internal channels set up to resolve disputes so employees don’t have to go outside to have their disputes and problems dealt with fairly, finally, in accordance with the principles of natural justice, and in a way that allows them to save face and salvage ongoing relationships.

Managing conflict informally and avoiding it in the first place

If an organization is able to resolve conflict internally through relatively informal channels, it can help avoid legal and financial liability, negative publicity and a loss of control over the situation. It can also positively impact employee morale and promote a sense of fairness. The company can even help facilitate organizational effectiveness by dealing with and managing organizational conflict — preferably by avoiding it in the first place.

While a certain level of conflict is appropriate and can even be considered healthy for an organization, destructive conflict can create a poisoned work environment and result in an impasse where nothing gets resolved and people are unable to move beyond the issue in question. Conflict can be caused by many types of issues including different perspectives, personality conflicts, different cultural backgrounds, organizational silos, a lack of appreciation for other people’s roles, conflicting priorities, bullying and harassment, scarcity of resources, poorly defined roles and responsibilities, stress, overwork, and even mental health issues and challenges.

Beyond dispute resolution and mediation

Obviously, some of the above issues are caused by organizational dysfunction. Because of that, it probably makes sense to try to diagnose some of these problems and remedy them through organizational development type solutions rather than focusing purely on dispute resolution mechanisms such as mediation and negotiation.

It is also the case that mediating employment disputes isn’t always the right approach, particularly where the cause of the conflict relates to allegations of highly serious and inappropriate behaviour such as workplace violence or harassment. The best approach in such situations is to conduct a workplace investigation and institute disciplinary sanctions where appropriate, possibly up to and including termination of employment.

That’s not to say every instance of mildly inappropriate behaviour needs to be subject to formal discipline. Sometimes mediation, coaching, training, mentoring or performance feedback can help deal with the rough edges of people’s personalities and help them become less abrasive and difficult to work with.

As mentioned above, conflict isn’t always a negative thing. The trick is to try to harness conflict in a positive and healthy manner to resolve people’s differences rather than sweeping it under the rug.

Some people and organizations are so conflict-averse they avoid dealing with obvious problems by refusing to deal with them. That isn’t healthy, and one partial solution is to facilitate workshops on how to harness healthy conflict to improve organizational performance.

Additional resources and Happy Holidays

Thomson Reuters has a number of different publications to help HR practitioners manage conflict in a healthy way. These books include Workplaces that Work: A Guide to Conflict Management in Union and Non-Union Work Environments and The Art and Science of Workplace Mediation, both by Blaine Donais, and the HR Manager’s Guide to Organization Development, by Kay Hubbard.

I hope everyone has a conflict-free, restful and enjoyable Holiday Season. Merry Christmas for those who are celebrating, Happy Holidays, and all the best for 2018.

Latest stories