The fall-out from the rush to employment tribunals – up 90% according to the government’s statistics – is starting to be felt across the range of organisations. Even at the conciliation service Acas, where staff unhappy at the sudden and growing pressures from cases have opted for strike action. Conflict can affect any organisation, anytime.
The upsurge in numbers of tribunals had always been expected. Making employees pay fees for tribunals wasn’t doing anything to help problems go away, it just meant grievances being bottled up, perhaps made worse. And as a result of high-profile scandals we have a workplace culture where employees are increasingly aware of their rights and more willing to air their grievances and suspicions over discrimination. In the 1980s there were 20 employment rights under which an employee could make a tribunal claim; now there are more than 60.
What matters now is that HR and managers take another look at their processes, and the ways in which all those low-level, everyday disagreements and tensions are handled. How can these be dealt with informally? Do managers have the skills and is there the kind of culture in the workplace that encourages and allows issues to be discussed?
There’s an opportunity here to demonstrate best practice: a positive working culture where people have enough belief and trust in their organisation that they’re willing to talk openly about problems, to admit failures and weaknesses. The biggest mistake organisations can make is to see any kind of conflict – even at the level of minor disagreement – as unwelcome and a problem, something to be avoided, and where it occurs, should be immediately swept into grievance processes. Introducing better systems around conflict and conversations should be a platform for improving the working culture as a whole, encouraging trust and openness.
A useful starting point for change is to carry out a conflict audit to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your current provision in terms of what happens to complaints, whistleblowing, complaint handling, grievance resolution, performance management, absence management and the relevant learning and development. Push for involvement and role models from the leadership team. Encourage senior executives to consider what it means to actively encourage ‘good conflict’, supporting opportunities for open conversations, respecting alternative views, and what it will mean for levels of trust. Make sure there’s a consistent message to managers and staff generally on the value of open conversations.
Some managers have the inbuilt skills to manage conflict constructively. Others will need support if they are to have difficult conversations. Review your management programmes to ensure they include the soft skills involved in embracing positive conflict and defusing negative conflict. Motivate and train employees to have difficult conversations with each other and with their manager, for example in how to challenge colleagues’ banter or perceived manager’s bullying – skills which can be expanded to include how they respond to difficult situations with the full range of stakeholders working with a a department.
More tribunals is a cost – but it’s the wider implications that have the bigger financial impact. Like stress, for example. The Labour Force Survey for 2017, as one snapshot, suggests people suffering from stress take around 29 days of leave with the condition. According to CIPD figures, the number of days of management and HR time spent on managing both disciplinary and grievance cases has gone up in the last 20 years, from 13 to 18 days for a disciplinary, and from 9 to 14.4 days for a grievance.
The future for employee relations, in an age of a greater awareness of rights, and growing willingness to air issues and suspected discrimination, is in developing skills and processes for early and more informal conversations that lead to a resolution. So that means equipping more managers with conversation skills, higher levels of ‘conversational intelligence’ and making opportunities for using mediation and neutral assessments, making them a more ordinary part of working lives.
Honesty and transparency in organisations needs to start with the day-to-day conversations of employees – and the pressures from tribunals may well be the necessary spur for change.