How employers should respond to conflict at work

When colleagues clash, the workplace needs to open up and allow conversation about the issues, explains Arran Heal

When workplace conflict reaches the stage where formal processes are needed, the costs to employers are three times higher. That’s the most important finding from the new Acas research. The headlines might have been taken by the overall cost to UK employers each year (£28.5bn), but figures like this can feel meaningless, remote from the very personal issues and experiences involved.

So yes, three times the cost when cases reach the formal stage. But most significantly that’s a reflection of the worry, pain and wasted time that comes with conflict – including angst for HR and management. Given the central role of the workplace in people’s lives, a breakdown in relationships can come with severe consequences in terms of emotional and psychological suffering. 

Going through formal grievance and disciplinary processes, perhaps also an investigation, can take months or even years. Typically there are feelings of shame and anxiety for parties involved; sometimes a collapse in self-esteem and mental ill-health. There’s presenteeism and absence. Ultimately the greatest costs come from when there is an irrevocable breakdown in the employee-employer relationship, when there’s a resignation or dismissal.

As the research highlights, of the 10 million employees who are faced with workplace conflict each year, more than half of them consequently suffer with stress and mental ill-health; 900,000 have to take time off from their job; almost 500,000 resign; and 300,000 are dismissed. 

There are also many indirect effects that are less easy to measure. An entire workplace environment, its mood and sense of togetherness, purpose and trust, can be damaged by a single case of conflict. Grievances can snowball. More than ever before, employees are willing to talk about negative experiences through social media, and the employer brand is always under threat. 

In a working environment where there’s a lack of trust, where people feel they’re not able to speak up without recriminations, there can be a simmering resentment leading to low levels of engagement, loyalty and performance. 

There’s a simple message from this new insight into costs: the way in which employers respond to conflict makes a huge difference to people’s experiences (and consequently the costs).

Conflict is unavoidable. It’s also healthy – and HR shouldn’t see conflict, grievances, or negativity as behaviours that need to be squashed and eradicated, replaced by a workforce wearing smiley masks. As the research has shown, it’s the attempts to deny the space needed for open conversation about problems, pushing conflict into formal processes, that creates more damage. 

Clashes often just mean there’s a diversity of personalities and ways of thinking in the organisation. It shows people are prepared to challenge convention and speak up about inappropriate behaviour; there’s change and innovation. 

Workplaces need to open up, not shut down. The evidence shows that when issues are dealt with early, at an informal level via conversation or mediation for example, the costs are low. If staff aren’t having conversations with their manager, with someone from HR or a union, then the costs on average rise sharply.

Starting and keeping the conversation going is critical. Employees at every level need to feel willing – and equipped with the skills – to talk about difficult situations and issues. In other words, HR needs to be thinking in terms of creating a workplace culture of good conversations. 

Our experience has shown us the importance of having a foundation of Conversational Integrity (CI) skills, the awareness of the role of conversations in relationships, how the quality of conversations changes the dynamics, and the huge role they play on outcomes of situations. Core skills for CI include; situational awareness, curiosity, reflective listening, empathy and self awareness. There also needs to be the right systems in place in order to build a culture of good practices over time (such as access to mediation and neutral assessment).

The Acas research is valuable in shedding light on workplace conflict, in trying to measure an area that’s often treated as private, messy and embarrassing. Numbers help when it comes to making a case for action among senior leaders. But for HR, the takeaway needs to be a renewed focus on the state of workplace culture: will people speak up in the right ways, with conversation skills and maturity?

Arran Heal is managing director of CMP