Handling Internal Complaints

Are you conflict averse? For most folks, conflict can be a nasty trigger. It sets off the brain’s panic center—the amygdala—activating responses of fight, flight, freeze, or (new tactic for those who don’t mind how bad it makes them look) fawn to cope. It’s neither fun nor fulfilling to work in an office frequently disrupted by this type of energy. However, workplaces now abound with all kinds of people from a variety of backgrounds. Conflict is unavoidable.

Conflict is a reality of working life. All workplaces wrestle with conflicts of some sort at point or another.  Because companies issue policies to mitigate such trouble as sexual harassment, discrimination, and the misuse of technology, they have provided better guidelines for HR departments to resolve weighty disputes sooner than later. However, conflict doesn’t require illegal behavior. If sentient beings work together, there will always be the potential for headbutting.

Under the right circumstances, an internal dispute may provide a company a way to become better informed and more resilient in facing flack in the marketplace. A company that fosters diverse talents and viewpoints among its crew will keep its eyes and ears open and its tactics flexible for problem-solving. A company smart enough to perceive conflict as a teacher may wield it to kick open new doors or avert unforeseen disaster.

What is Conflict?

A 2008 international study by CPP Global, publisher of the Myers-Briggs assessment tool, defined conflict as “any workplace disagreement that disrupts the flow of work.” The same year, a Psychometrics study in Canada described conflict as “a struggle that results when one individual’s concerns diverge from another person’s wants.” Indeed.com discerned that the first definition fits a negative view of conflict, while the second definition may goose the parties locked in confrontation to seek novel, potential win-win outcomes.

Common causes of conflicts among individuals include:

  • Divergent personalities, cultures, experiences, work styles, personal habits, or perspectives
  • Competition between colleagues
  • Poor communication or unclear supervision
  • Uncertainly about roles and responsibilities

Employees responding to CPP’s survey cited personality clashes and egos (49%), stress (34%), heavy workloads (33%), poor leadership (29%), dishonesty (26%), unclear roles (22%), clashing values (18%), harassment or bullying (13%), and the perception of discriminatory practices (10%). Nearly one third (27%) had seen conflicts evoke personal attacks.

Tellingly, CPP respondents observed that conflicts were highest (34%) among frontline or entry-level employers—those likely untrained in conflict management.

Here are four types of team conflicts as formulated by Indeed’s career coach Jennifer Herrity.

  • Task-based conflicts (a team member doesn’t hold up their part of a task, affecting another member’s or the team’s ability to finish on time; different teams put at odds over resources, budgets, and policies)
  • Leadership conflicts (clashes in leadership styles, one director impeding inclusive and collaborative directing)
  • Work style conflicts (self-starters versus those who prefer step-by-step guidance)
  • Personality/relationship-based clashes (people not getting along)

As workplaces grow, more people connect and occasionally collide over different values and methods for doing their work. Negative conflict can manifest in arguments, difficult relationships, verbal abuse, harassment, bullying, or unethical behavior that affects the entire company. Positive conflict can inspire competition, motivate players to work harder for their goals, and tolerate confrontations over different strategies, which can give way to new and better approaches.

What Does Conflict Cost Us?

According to Human Resources Online, managers spend 15% of their work time mediating conflict. Workplace discord can freeze the pace of projects and deliverables. Where misunderstandings and resentments proliferate, an institution can hemorrhage time and money. Pollack Peacebuilding Systems unveiled its Workplace Conflict Statistics for 2022 with some eyebrow-raising data.

  • U.S. employees spend approximately 2.8 hours each week involved in conflict. That’s nearly $359 billion in hours (the equivalent of $385 million day) focused on squabbling rather than collaborating. (It sounds a bit like Congress!)
  • A company’s average cost for litigated issues was $160,000, averaging 318 days to resolve. Most employment disputes don’t make it to court. For cases that do, the damages can be hefty. The median judgment runs about $200,000, not counting the cost of defense. One in four cases ends in a judgment of $500,000 or more.
  • Almost one in ten employees (9%) have seen projects fail because of workplace conflict.

For nonprofits, employee retention is an existential issue. Any atmosphere made noxious by conflict can demotivate employees and volunteers who can leave to find a more hospitable gig elsewhere.

How Do We Handle and Resolve Conflict?

If you Google for answers on how to handle internal disputes, you can bag dozens of skills lists and even more pages detailing resolution techniques. Widely regarded as a leadership skill, conflict resolution is the art of addressing differences between two or more parties and finding common ground for everyone to work together. How HR departments investigate internal conflict and why it’s important to train employees in conflict resolution skills is vital to your nonprofit’s longevity.

HR Investigations

A company cannot let conflict fester until it damages the company’s process, employer brand, or consumer brand. It must also guard against a courtroom verdict that could damage the brand and bring ruinous financial loss. HR seeks to resolve disputes in-house whenever possible. Companies task their HR departments with fielding contention, and HR runs point until it is resolved or must be escalated to outside mediation, arbitration, alternate dispute resolution (ADR), or a court.

Your company should have an established internal complaint process for HR to follow as it investigates complaints. The Australian Human Rights Commission offers protocols for such a process, emphasizing the urgency to address complaints quickly and fairly—particularly complaints about workplace discrimination and harassment. With an internal complaint process in place, your firm can improve workplace practices and policies, raise staff morale, productivity, and retention, and avoid forwarding problems to external agencies or for legal action.

With a responsive complaints process, an employer can demonstrate the company took “reasonable precautions and exercised due diligence” to prevent discrimination or harassment. The policy, coupled with a consistent record of swift action, can make your organization look properly responsive if the complaint winds up with an investigative government agency or in court.

The Nonprofit Risk Management Center notes for nonprofits that, “There are various types of internal dispute resolution options, ranging from a very formal, binding mandatory arbitration procedure . . . to the informal open-door policy favored by most mid-sized and small nonprofits. Some options are:

  1. Mandatory binding arbitration,
  2. A commitment to bring disputes to alternative dispute resolution (ADR), using non-binding arbitration,
  3. A formal two- or three-step grievance procedure, with a review committee comprised of various board and staff members,
  4. Referral of the dispute to an impartial party, who may or may not be connected with the nonprofit, to serve as the arbiter of disputes,
  5. An open-door policy, and
  6. A peer review committee.

NRMC assures that “an internal dispute resolution procedure . . . provides an outlet for employees’ concerns. A grievance or complaint procedure gives the employee his “day in court” and can be helpful for the nonprofit’s management because misunderstandings or unhealthy disputes between staff may be uncovered and addressed before the conflicts spin out of control. Serious concerns, such as sexual harassment between co-workers, can be uncovered and addressed by the nonprofit before a lawsuit is filed. The goal of internal dispute resolution is to solve the problems at the lowest level possible, so that workplace disputes don’t escalate into legal actions.”

How Peer Workers Can Help

Workers receive a variety of coursework and training during their onboarding period. It makes sense to offer training and certification in conflict resolution so that they may defuse workplace friction as it happens. In circumstances where a disagreement results from a basic miscommunication or a poorly defined workplace procedure, a well-trained employee with appropriate training could persuasively lower the temperature on a situation without having to formally involve a manager or HR. Training in such skills as observation and empathy can enable one coworker to see how another coworker might be misread by their peers because of such traits as autism, food allergies, color blindness, or other facets of our many diversities that may be invisible to others.

Returning to the CPP study for a moment, note that 76% of all workers who participated reported conflict creating positive results, improved problem-solving, and deeper insights about their colleagues. Pressure, as they say, makes the diamonds. CPP’s research suggests that the key to effective conflict management is developing the skills and mindset to deal directly with conflict. Instead of being conflict averse, one should embrace it as a process that yields good outcomes.

With growth, competitive pressure, warp-speed technology, and worker diversity, workplaces are becoming more like ecosystems where conflict is the natural byproduct of not the new normal, but the wildly unpredictable—a form of never normal. Savvy companies may see turmoil as a springboard for growth and a path to the future, keeping buckets on hand to catch the strange ore glimpsed under pressure.

This blog post was written by Amélie Frank, consulting copywriter to UST. To learn more about Amélie’s professional portfolio you can find her online at https://www.linkedin.com/in/amelie-frank/.

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12/09/22 10:31 AM

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