HR needs to be braver in challenging the status quo on workplace conflict

The people profession has traditionally been afraid of departing from formal disciplinary and grievance policies but, as David Liddle argues, a more collaborative and compassionate approach is needed

As HR professionals returned to their desks after the Christmas break this year, many were no doubt still dealing with the hangover of workplace conflict rumbling on from 2019.

The Royal Mail may have won its legal battle to prevent a pre-Christmas postal strike, but workers were left angry and upset, and the Communication Workers Union has vowed to continue fighting against changes to terms and conditions. And although the official train strikes have come to an end (for now), disruption and unrest continues, with unions considering their next move. 

High-profile industrial disputes aside, HR also frequently has to deal with what must feel like an unrelenting tide of individual workplace conflicts. Personality clashes between colleagues, employees falling out with their managers, people banging on their door, demanding that disciplinary procedures are invoked or grievance policies enacted… Work seems to have become a battleground, leaving employees anxious, stressed and unable to do their best work; and leaving managers frustrated at spending time sorting out spats or investigating allegations of bad behaviour, bullying or harassment.

So what is going wrong? And what steps can HR take to heal these often deep-seated rifts and bring about more happy, harmonious workplaces where employment tribunals are a rarity rather than a regular occurrence?

It’s worth considering what might be behind the fractured relationships and incivility now dogging organisations on an almost daily basis. Firstly, we are living through turbulent political and economic times. Uncertainty surrounds us, people are under immense pressure and some high-profile figures (particularly in the political arena) are behaving poorly, resorting to insults and rancour rather than engaging in healthy, respectful debate. This is rubbing off on society in general, where people from all walks of personal and professional life seem to have forgotten how to ‘disagree agreeably’.

Secondly, technological advances are causing profound disruption to the way organisations go about their business. Leaders are having to make radical changes to the way work is organised, and in the race to remain competitive, they are often having to do it almost overnight. Workers are worried that automation and digitisation will wipe out their roles, that their hard-earned skills are going to become obsolete, and that new employment models are going to undermine their job stability and security. They are struggling to understand and accept the inevitable changes, and in the absence of communication and consultation from employers, we are seeing the unwelcome return of the ‘us and them’ scenarios that existed in the 70s.

Part of the problem is that organisations, in their attempts to keep pace with change, haven’t realised they also need to make a radical shift in the way they manage their people, and support them through the chaos and ambiguity. Organisations need to pivot to a future where the focus is on people-centred, values-driven, ‘fair and just’ cultures, where dialogue and collaboration are seen as a priority and changes are done ‘with’ people, rather than ‘to’ them. They need to find new, more ‘human’ ways of managing people, that have employee wellbeing at their core, and don’t result in staff feeling under-valued, used and disengaged.

It’s also time to completely overturn the way we manage conflict, moving away from destructive, divisive formal procedures that cause irretrievable damage to working relationships, towards constructive, compassionate, face-to-face dialogue. We need to take a more strategic approach, and stop seeing conflict through the narrow lens of who did or said what to who, instead gathering data that will give us an insight into the root causes and impact.

This shift is too big to be dealt with by HR alone. What’s needed is a triumvirate approach, with HR, management and unions working closely together. If the profession is to help bring about this change, however, HR practitioners need to get a lot braver when it comes to challenging the status quo.

When it comes to conflict, HR has typically been risk averse, reluctant to step away from the traditional formal disciplinary and grievance and bullying and harassment policies for fear of falling foul of the law, or of appearing to take a ‘soft’ stance on inappropriate behaviour. So it’s time to rip up the rule book and shift the emphasis from grievance to resolution. There are more collaborative and fair and just ways of managing conflict – and if we are to get the best out of our people and step into the next decade successfully, we need to start using them.

There’s no reason why we can’t. There is no mandatory or moral obligation on organisations to have a formal grievance procedure. Provided they comply with the Acas code, they can choose to manage conflict in whatever way works best for the business and the people who work in it.

David Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group