There were 115,000 applications to employment tribunals by disgruntled employees last year, up 17% on the year before - as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s new Managing Conflict at Work Survey reveals, disputes in the workplace are increasing.
The press coverage of conflicts in recent weeks - London Underground staff, Heathrow airport tanker drivers, Gatwick baggage handlers and so on, represents the tip of the iceberg.
The average employer in the survey had 30 formal disciplinary cases, nine grievances and three employment tribunal applications to deal with last year.
Disputes are time-consuming and costly, with organisations spending on average 10.5 days per case dealing with disciplinary and grievance issues and 12.5 days preparing for a tribunal case
On October 1 the government introduced its new statutory dispute resolution regulations, trying to reduce the pressure on the tribunals system by encouraging the resolution of disputes in the workplace.
Despite the bleating of employers’ organisations that this is further over-regulation, the rules were generally welcomed by the 1,200 organisations in our survey. All already had some form of procedure in place and most thought the legislation would help to reduce the number of tribunals.
But they were much less confident about their own abilities to address disputes internally. Far and away the biggest cause of disputes is not pay, working conditions or discrimination, but the personal behaviour and conduct of line managers and employees.
While the blame is often directed at fee-hungry lawyers and bolshy union officials, only a third of HR staff rated their line managers’ abilities to avoid and manage conflicts as good.
Many feel existing procedures are confrontational, ending in a lose/lose situation. According to Dorothy Brown, head of HR at the Department of Constitutional Affairs: “UK organisations do not understand the value of resolving disputes through a joint approach.”
So if it’s not just about procedures, how do you create happy and harmonious employee relations? The CIPD survey highlights two important solutions: training and mediation.
A school just down the road has gone beyond the politically correct policy document on bullying that virtually all schools and employers now publish. All the children are taught about the value of respecting others’ views and a trained counsellor helps address problem situations. As one girl put it, “it helped us to be more grown up and learn how to deal with each other - we’re civil and don’t shout now”.
Only a quarter of employers in our study provided mediation and dispute resolution training. Yet those that do experienced just 22 formal disciplinary cases last year, compared with
the average of 49 for the rest. According to Fiona Colquhoun at the Centre for Alternative Dispute Resolution, training can integrate conflict resolution skills into working relationships - “mediation skills are life skills”.
At the Department of Constitutional Affairs, a trial period using eight trained in-house mediators led to the number of disputes falling and the average duration of cases dropping from 84 to 25 days. As one CIPD survey participant put it: “We need to provide independent support to both accuser and accused, to change traditional attitudes.”
The other day we had a team development day for our management group at CIPD. We all filled out something called the Thomas Kilman conflict management questionnaire. A number of us were strong on the ‘competing’ and ‘avoiding’ styles that the questionnaire profiles but as a team we need to develop our ‘collaborative’ style of working.
The CIPD survey suggests there are plenty of other UK organisations that should be undergoing similar training and working towards more joint and grown-up solutions.