Employment related disputes can arise in all organisations between employees or between management and employees. And this can happen whether the environment is unionised or non-unionised. Dealing with these disputes is challenging on a number of fronts.
Firstly, resolution of such problems requires conflict management skills which management might not have.
Secondly, even managers with the right skills can have difficulty driving resolution if they themselves are a party to the dispute.
Thirdly, many organisations lack formal policies for resolving such problems. Having such policies, besides being considered good practice in terms of complying with employment law, positions the organisation to be consistent and systematic in how it approaches such disputes.
That brings up a fourth difficulty – that organisations have such policies but that they are flawed.
And of course there is the obvious problem of having such policies but not following them.
It is obvious then that there is a lot of potential for things to go wrong in how a dispute is handled – and this is of course on top of the obvious difficulty of having a dispute in the first place.
Disgruntled employees are less engaged and correspondingly less productive and more likely to make mistakes. Their disgruntlement can also have ripple effects on the broader workforce – be that in terms of morale, undermining of the organisation, or even possible malicious behaviour by employees. The impact can also spread outside the workplace if the person’s role requires them to deal with customers and suppliers – let alone what they might say to those in their own immediate (and perhaps not so immediate) personal circle.
Of course, if they remain dissatisfied with their employer’s perceived inaction, or with their employer’s efforts to address the causes of their disgruntlement, they may bring their case further. For example, they could make an online complaint direct to the State in relation to employment rights! There is also a long list of employment rights under which cases can be considered by the WRC.
There is an ongoing debate in Ireland over whether people have become more litigious or whether they are simply more aware of their rights. Whatever the reason, employees have legal tools with which to assert their rights – and they are using them. If an employee pursues their grievance formally then solicitors could become involved. If the legal machinations extend to a court case then you could also be looking at barristers.
This all means money – the loss of productivity by being deflected from the work you would prefer to be focussing on, the effect reputational damage could have on your brand and sales, legal costs, and of course the potential payment you could be liable to if the WRC or a court were to rule against your organisation.
The potential impact? The cost of not handling a dispute correctly could exceed the cost of correctly dealing with the original problem.
This all points in a clear direction. It is best for employers to handle disputes internally in a non-adversarial way as soon as possible – both to avoid the effects on the business but also to reduce the prospect of an employee considering involving external bodies or indeed litigation.
Handling the disputes correctly could also have other benefits. The cause of the employee’s disgruntlement might be that the organisation has been doing something wrong. If the problem is fixed then the company is improved and the employee may become more engaged – maybe even lauded for bringing a problem to light. This could be even more beneficial if the original problem had been witnessed by others, for example, favouritism or bullying.
Conflict in the workplace needs skilful and delicate management. It needs a professional, prompt and discreet approach. Appropriate documentation is crucial – as is a calm approach that avoids making the situation more dramatic than is warranted. It requires the company to be ethical but not foolhardy while maintaining a focus on its goal – a solution that is fair to the employees but that is also in the best interests of the company, full legal compliance, and the putting in place of the mechanisms necessary to implement that solution.
If you are experiencing conflict in your workplace, we can help. To get expert guidance in this area, call Mary Cullen, Patrick Foley, Keith Connolly or Liam Barton on 056 770 1060 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.