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Human resources Resolving workplace conflict

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Cite as: (2008) 82(10) LIJ, p. 78

Prevent damage by making conflict resolution a priority.

People work best in an open environment where mutual respect is encouraged through policies and procedures, and support is given freely so that common goals are reached in a harmonious manner. Unfortunately for some legal firms, this is not always the reality.

Putting a group of intelligent and competitive people who are trained to be sceptical into a stressful and competitive environment does not encourage team work and often leads to conflict.

Conflict itself, however, is not always a bad thing. It is how it is handled that is important.

When used positively, workplace conflict can lead to new ideas and better work practices. If not handled properly, conflict can lead to lost productivity, low morale, absenteeism, unnecessary staff turnover and workers compensation claims.

Conflict that manifests as personality clashes, political backbiting and even bullying and harassment is damaging and costs firms a great deal.

As a long-term strategy, building strong relationships with co-workers before problems arise can prevent conflict from occurring, or enable much easier resolution.

Understanding another person’s personality can give insight into the best way to approach them, and having them onside will mean they’ll be less likely to work against you for the sake of “winning”.

Try to promote an open, positive and collaborative working environment where everyone’s ideas are valued and teamwork is encouraged and reinforced.

Hire people who have demonstrated professionalism and ability to work easily in a team environment. Hold social events to build your teams, and promote information sharing and relationship building among staff.

Develop a conflict resolution policy in consultation with the firm’s employees.

The policy should be readily available and new starters to the firm made aware of the importance of an environment free of harassment, discrimination and detrimental internal conflict.

Prevent problems arising by addressing workplace grievances promptly.

Normally there are early signs of discontent before conflict arises; investigating issues at this point may put out the fire.

Providing an open and non-threatening environment to discuss concerns will bring the most positive results, both short-term and long-term: if those involved feel threatened, they will be very unlikely to calm down and be receptive to solutions.

Try not to allow the conflict to become personal. Maintain a sense of professionalism and focus on the business issue and on reaching the most positive outcome for all.

Listening to the other person’s point of view, and trying to understand how they are feeling, can give a more rounded perspective and help to resolve the problem in the interests of all concerned.

The Victorian government’s Better Health website (http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au) has valuable tips to help resolve workplace clashes. It suggests getting the conflicting parties to:

  • try to be polite and reasonable, or at least neutral to the other person, i.e. if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all;
  • refrain from dredging up personal issues from the past, as this could potentially lead to further conflict and blame. Focus on working together for the future and agreeing to start afresh;
  • try not to complain or gossip to other work colleagues; as tempting as it is to vent, it does not solve the problem – if anything it exacerbates it;
  • accept that people come from a variety of backgrounds and have different perspectives; and
  • reflect on how energy wasted in dislike or disdain for the other person could be used more productively.

The Victorian Legal, Professional, Clerical and Administrative Employees Award 2004 includes a detailed dispute resolution procedure (s11). The award can be downloaded directly from http://www.workplaceauthority.gov.au, searching Award No. AT831581, or via the LIV website (http://www.liv.asn.au/members/hr). The following are some of its basic guidelines.

When a dispute arises, the employee and their supervisor should meet to discuss it as soon as possible.

The aggrieved person/s can elect to have a representative at the initial meeting, to provide support, monitor discussion and act as mediator if necessary.

All discussions need to be fully documented and follow-up appointments scheduled. HR or other resources such as senior management can be involved if required.

Should the matter not be satisfactorily resolved, it may be referred to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) for conciliation or arbitration.

This is a last resort, and parties to the dispute are bound by any recommendations or decisions of the AIRC. The award states that “while the parties attempt to resolve the matter, work will continue as normal unless an employee has a reasonable concern about an imminent risk to his or her health and safety”.

Conflict is as common in workplaces as anywhere else. Taking steps to calm the waters early on, coupled with strong policies and procedures, will mean that conflict cannot prosper.


KIRSTEN VAN DE HOEF is the LIV’s Human Resources administrator. For further information on this column and other HR issues ph 9607 9548 or visit http://www.liv.asn.au.au/members/hr

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