How to handle disputes at work

26 Apr 2019 By Alastair Currie

How can HR professionals best tackle the negative impact workplace conflict can have on an organisation and its employees? Alastair Currie reports

The CBI estimates that UK businesses spend around £33 billion each year on resolving workplace conflict, and lose 370 million working days as a result. Conflict can also be a drain on leadership time, but it’s worthwhile investing time and effort up front to ensure the investigation gets off on the right track and problems don’t occur further along the line. 

Developing terms of reference

One area which tends to be overlooked time and again is the creation of a comprehensive Terms of Reference (TOR) document. This should form the foundation for any workplace investigation and set out the core components and people involved. Essentially, the document gives direction to the investigator and explains the purpose of their report for the organisation. 

TOR are fundamental to the way an investigation unfolds and without a solid document in place, organisations can find their attempts to resolve situations failing or causing more problems. By establishing an understanding of what’s required and when, the terms of reference also create an investigation plan.  

Areas to include are:

  • Details of commissioning manager, investigating officer and HR support
  • Allegation to be investigated
  • List of proposed witnesses/sources of evidence
  • Proposed timeframe;
  • Relevant policies and procedures
  • Purpose for which the report will be used


There’s an art to getting the wording of an allegation right and it’s important that the information presented isn’t too vague but also isn’t so specific it prevents the investigator from thoroughly exploring the case. Organisations need to consider whether the investigator will have sufficient detail to understand what they are investigating and if the subject will understand the case against them. 

Take the time to spell out allegations in clear detail – including dates, times, names and the act complained of. Inevitably, as the case progresses, new allegations might come to the surface so it’s crucial the TOR are updated. Also consider whether the investigation’s subject has had an opportunity to answer any new or reframed allegations.

Anonymity and reluctant witnesses 

Reluctant witnesses can be a real challenge, especially in environments where staff are encouraged to raise concerns anonymously. While this creates safety, it also presents a real dilemma if issues need further investigation. Disciplinary proceedings can be difficult to carry out if witnesses are unwilling to put their names to the concerns being raised. Not only does this undermine the fairness of the disciplinary process but also the case against the individual in question. 

When dealing with this type of situation, employers need to do everything possible to encourage anonymous witnesses to step forward and put their name behind their evidence. The best way to do this is by offering protection, stating the support the organisation can provide and emphasising the importance of upholding professional duties. 

Audit trails and record keeping

It’s also vital that organisations store any correspondence about the dispute securely, making sure that records, notes and minutes are recorded. 

Introducing an online HR system is a good way to track employee relations cases and incorporate policies and procedures, as all information and correspondence can be easily accessed and shared from a central point. This allows users to monitor time frames, ensuring they’re met, as well as providing HR professionals with the ability to identify patterns and trends in employment cases. 

Disputes in the workplace can be unavoidable and to some extent are an expected occurrence. Although these can seem like lengthy and complicated processes, it’s important to invest time from the outset so everyone involved has the correct expectations and processes are in place to minimise risk.

Alastair Currie is an employment partner at Bevan Brittan

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