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In the line of fire: Dealing with difficult situations

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Managing conflictWe all fall out with our colleagues from time to time but if the situation gets out of hand, Louise Druce examines how HR can help resolve office conflicts and deal with the aftermath.


The odd spat between colleagues is nothing unusual in a busy office, but if it starts to get out of hand, it can have serious repercussion for the company and the rest of its employees. Usually, an informal chat with the line manager can resolve most issues but if it doesn’t, when is it time for HR to step in?

Minimising work conflict

  • Train managers to handle difficult conversations with employees

  • Encourage open expression of opinions

  • Recognise the importance of feelings

  • Listen to what people have to say

  • Focus on interests, not positions and personalities

  • Have clear discipline, grievance and dispute procedures

  • Consider outside help where necessary
  • Source: Acas

    It may sound obvious but it all depends on the situation. For example, if a manager is stepping in to resolve an argument between two colleagues, they can usually deal with it informally. However, if the complaint is more serious and could involve gross misconduct or disciplinary procedures, or if the manager is implicated in the complaint, HR needs to step in from the outset.

    Martin Warren, head of employment law at Eversheds, likens it to “dancing on a pin”.

    “In an ideal world, if an informal complaint becomes formal you want to have a note of the meeting. However, by having a note about the meeting it can turn an informal meeting into a formal one because you tip the employee over the edge,” he explains. “If HR is there, the message you are sending out is that this is a potentially serious situation.”

    The whole truth?

    Of course, there are instances where an informal situation can go wrong. The most common mistakes made by managers inexperienced in HR issues, says Joanne Pitts, an employment law consultant at HR advisers Croner, is to view the complaint from the side of the person who is making it and dealing with situations inconsistently.

    “What managers and HR need to remember is that there is a duty of care to both people involved, regardless of who raised the complaint and who is being accused,” she says. “You don’t want to suspend people or create stigmas. The complaint needs thorough investigation and if one person is to blame and not the other, then you can take formal action.”

    When it comes to consistency, Pitts adds that if two people are having an altercation, for example, both employees also need to be handled in a similar way. “If they are both as bad as each other, both employees need to be disciplined, not just one,” she explains.

    On the other hand, it also needs to be made clear to staff that if employees make complaints out of malice or some other hidden agenda, or simply because they enjoy having a good moan, they could find themselves at the end of a disciplinary for falsifying a claim.

    “These cases are in the minority but you do see them, especially when an employee knows their performance is under par,” says Warren, pointing out that more unscrupulous employees might put in a claim for bullying or harassment to stall an investigation into their personal performance.

    Put it in black and white

    If the complaint is serious enough to risk a dismissal, the most crucial thing for employers is to ensure they have set out clear disciplinary and grievance policies, and that the procedures are followed to the letter.

    “You need to make sure you’ve followed a fair process and complied with the ‘test of reasonableness’ at tribunal,” says Pitts. “This means you have thoroughly investigated, you have got the notes, you’ve spoken to everybody involved and you’ve looked at all the bad evidence as well as the good evidence that supports the way you want to go forward.

    “If there is any risk you are honing in on one particular element and haven’t looked at the whole picture, it could make the action taken against the employee unfair.”

    “If there is any risk you are honing in on one particular element and haven’t looked at the whole picture, it could make the action taken against the employee unfair.”

    Joanne Pitts, Croner

    It can also prove costly in more ways than one. “If you haven’t dealt with a grievance or disciplinary procedure, there is danger of a financial uplift of up to 50% of any awards made for not following the statutory process,” Pitts adds.

    You can find out more about grievance and disciplinary policies in detail here, but both Pitts and Warren agree it is vital they are kept updated, all changes are communicated to all staff and that the policies can be easily accessed by all employees at any time.

    One area of contention that has had the Croner hotline buzzing recently is social networking, namely employees indiscreetly slagging off employers or colleagues in blogs or on sites such as Facebook. Pitts says if social networking tools are important to the business, it needs to be made clear in the internet or IT policy what is deemed ‘acceptable use’ and that if any confidential information is posted, or they make derogatory remarks about the company or a member of staff who is easily identifiable as working for the company, it could become a disciplinary issue – even if they’re doing it in their own time.

    Warren compares the situation to occasions when staff get drunk at office parties away from the premises and start spouting off about work to clients. “The broad legal proposition is that the employer has to show a logical link between what the company does out of work, whether it’s blogging or partying, and how that impacts the employer’s business or reputation,” he explains. “If blogging was linked to the workplace and extreme enough to undermine the reputation of the business, the employer could say that effects the business.”

    After care

    When it comes to policies overall, however, Pitts warns that it’s not enough to simply tell a manager about a policy if they could potentially have to use a disciplinary or grievance procedure. Managers should also be trained to back it up and understand how it should work

    Then there is the aftermath. If a company has been forced to take disciplinary action, it doesn’t necessarily end when action has been taken. HR also needs to be on hand to bring the employee(s) back into the fold. “You need to mediate with them and have some sort of conciliation meeting to get employee relations back on track,” she adds.

    “It can be quite easy as a manager to focus on targets and business goals and forget the personnel element, which can cause problems with employee relations. HR can provide a really important balance to operational motivations and backing that up with the employee relations side as well.”

    2 Responses

    1. Staff Problems
      I have interpreted the article as recommending when the manager feels unable to handle the situation, for whatever reason, then HR should step in. If that is the intention, I have to disagree.

      To me it is crucial the management process is preserved intact, which means in this instance that the one who steps in alongside the manager is THEIR manager. Together the matter is dealt to. The role HR plays, no less significant for sure, is to provide the ‘backup’ necessary for both managers to ensure all the ‘i’s have been dotted and ‘t’s crossed. I have too often found resentment from the management line being created by HR doing part of their job, rather than providing the guidance advice and support for the managers to get on and do theirs. HR do not need this type of impediment to the important service they must provide.

      The other consideration of this approach is without the direct involvement of each manager, how on earth are they going to become efficient managers if every time the going gets tough, someone else comes along to do the job? Like everyone, managers learn by doing, and that includes the tricky situations. In this case, the senior manager is managing his ‘Team’ which of course includes the manager involved. If one wished to get academic over this, there would also be an element of leading involved especially in the review stage. Cheers.

    2. Managers and Staff taking responsibility
      Fairness, rigour and reasonableness are useful watchwords. These also apply to a mediating manager, either a local manager or HR manager. The benefit of mediation is that the people involved are tasked with responsibility to resolve their issues. Initial, informal assessments will help decide if mediation is appropriate. Mediation is flexible, best used as a preventative measure; it is now increasingly integrated into recommendations post investigation or as part of return to work. Within a mediation, a clear opening statement from the mediating manager on the boundaries of mediation and limits to confidentiality will allow a transition to a more formal process should it prove necessary. If the issues escalate to tribunal, then the organisation has demonstrated an early offer and attempt at resolution through use of mediation. Failing to use mediation were appropriate is currently resulting in adverse costs orders within the civil justice system.
      People and organisations need to encourage staff in conflict to step back from their situation and work to resolve it. Mediation provides an opportunity to clarify issues and behaviour; to separate impact from intention, deal with strong feelings on both sides, and help them find better ways to achieve what they want.
      Most policies ask as a first informal stage that the individual speaks to the person to resolve it. If the policy’s next stage is to investigate, then an opportunity has been missed. Talking with the person can seem too much for some especially if issue is about bullying, harassment or discrimination; that request can seem insensitive, or even risky. Provide support to resolve –
      – A simple line in the policy which says, if you feel unable to talk with the person on your own, we can help support you both in having a constructive conversation to resolve the issue.
      – More fully, organisations now include a mediation section, clause or paragraph under informal resolution. With the Gibbons review in mind and the repeal of the employment act, this would be timely.
      Steve Hindmarsh

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