Although conflict is a significant feature of organisational life, the importance of the way that it is managed, or often not managed, has been conspicuously absent from the employee engagement debate. However, a new Acas Policy Discussion paper, ‘Reframing Resolution - Managing Conflict and Resolving Individual Employment Disputes in the Contemporary Workplace’ argues that a more strategic approach to the management of discontent is not only vital in resolving conflict but also in securing increased engagement. The paper is based on a series of seminars, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), held over 12 months across the UK and which involved around 300 policy-makers, HR practitioners and academics.


In 2008, the consultants OPP, estimated that UK employees spend almost two hours per week dealing with conflict at work resulting in an annual “loss” of 370 million working days. Since then, the financial crisis and subsequent recession has created the ‘ideal’ conditions for increased conflict as organisations have sought to cut costs, improve performance and enact far-reaching change processes. According to the CIPD’s 2011 conflict management survey, ‘the scale of workplace conflict is remarkable and has increased in the recession’. However, the capacity of organisations to respond to these challenges has been fundamentally weakened.  In an increasing proportion of workplaces, the network of relationships between HR practitioners, frontline managers and employee representatives that have traditionally facilitated the discussion and negotiation of difficult issues no longer exist; in others they are under significant strain.

There is clear evidence that informal processes of resolution are more likely to be found where there are high trust relationships between employee representatives and managers. Consequently, the disappearance of representational structures from UK workplaces threatens to have a profound impact on dispute resolution. Perhaps not surprisingly, a succession of studies has linked falling union density with increases in individual employment disputes and litigation. At the same time, the changing nature of the HR function has placed much greater responsibility for the day-to-day management of conflict in the hands of line managers.

A recurring theme of the ESRC seminar series was that line and operational managers often lack the skills and confidence to intervene effectively to resolve difficult issues at an early stage. This is made worse by a lack of support from senior management, who may not see conflict management as a priority. This has two related effects. First, frontline managers do not receive sufficient time and space to devote to dealing with conflict, which is seen as secondary to immediate operational considerations. Second, key performance indicators on which managerial performance is judged rarely contain any reference to workplace conflict. In addition, managers fear the ramifications of making mistakes in conflict handling, and particularly the threat of litigation.

While these developments limit the ability of organisations to resolve conflict quickly and effectively, the way that managers respond to conflict also shapes employee engagement. If individuals feel that they and their colleagues are being treated fairly, this will help to counter the distrust of management and provide a basis for increased commitment and improved performance.

Nonetheless organisations can take measures to start to plug this ‘resolution gap’. First, they can place conflict management at the heart of their wider HR strategy by making conflict resolution a core competency for managers and leaders. People management, negotiation and mediation skills can be embedded into training and development programmes and into the criteria used to recruit, promote and assess managerial performance.

Second, organisations can invest in more creative approaches to managing conflict. There is growing evidence that workplace mediation can help to resolve complex and seemingly intractable issues, offering substantial savings in terms of staff time and cost and also delivering a greater sense of procedural justice for participants compared with conventional procedures. There is also tentative evidence that, in certain contexts, developing in-house mediation capacity can help to build trust and improve employment relations. Critically, innovative approaches to conflict management need to be integrated with broader strategies related to employee health and wellbeing and engagement.

Third, providing for structures of employee representation and providing support and training for staff in representative roles will reinforce existing, or cultivate new, processes of informal resolution. Building high trust relationships with trade unions and/or employee representatives is crucial in identifying potential sources of conflict and developing effective and early interventions.

Public policy is also critical in shaping organisational attitudes and approaches to workplace conflict. There is a danger that the collapse in employment tribunal volumes following the introduction of application and hearing fees will decrease the visibility of conflict but do little to treat its root causes. Instead, a regulatory framework is needed that incentivises early resolution, rebuilds structures of employee voice and encourages organisations to place the management of conflict at the heart of organisational strategy.

Richard Saundry is Associate Professor in Human Resource and Leadership Studies, Plymouth University.


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