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The adversarial nature of dispute resolution procedures

We can monkey around with rearranging words without changing meaning or intent, or we can be serious and reframe our conflict resolution procedures to truly restore trust, respect and engagement.

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Sometimes I have clients who request coaching with me to revisit experiences they’ve had at work. They feel they had been mislead by the nice sounding language in  harassment and bullying policies, and by the kind encouragement by someone in HR to initiate the complaint procedure.  They then arrive at my office, several years later, still bitter and seething inside for how things had turned out. Someone has finally had enough of them harping on the same old issue again and said “Go talk to someone won’tcha, and get it out of your system.”  Ending up feeling victimized after seeking help against victimization seems to be a not uncommon end result.  Disengagement from the employer, from HR, and certainly from ‘the other party’ and his/her allies, seems to be a fairly common fate.

Then there are my misgivings about the effectiveness of employee engagement surveys in really telling us what’s going on in an organization.  I have had moments of deep frustration when there has been a failure by management to give feedback to employees on such surveys, and high exasperation at management’s failure to consult on ways in which disengagement might be addressed. And I don’t mean consulting with me, as the consultant, I mean consulting with the employees who told them, through the questionnaire responses, what was wrong.

I have also spent many hours thinking about how ineffective and adversarial most grievance and dispute resolutions policies truly are.  Disengagement is as much about the employer’s failure to reduce conflict in the workplace as it is about ensuring that employees have meaningful work lives.   Yet, I don’t fault management for this lack of insight: they are doing the best they can with what they have – I just happen to think that what they have no longer serves the interests of either management or employees, and that it is time we talk about it openly and with a vision of a new way.

Grievance procedures are intrinsically adversarial: ostensibly intended to push the parties to resolve the conflict at the lowest possible level in the organization – closest to where the conflict arose – the procedural steps up the hierarchy suggest that it isn’t necessary to make the effort at level 1, because there’s an escalator that will get you to where the punishment will really hurt (the other person).

Harassment complaints are typically subject to investigation and conclude in a findings of fact: Harassment either occurred or didn’t occur. If the finding is yes, it occurred, the policy then may offer punitive measures all the way to down to dismissal.  If the finding is no, it wasn’t harassment, the complainant is sent back to the office, with loss of face for having spoken out.

Having policies to investigate and ‘fix’ a conflict without paying attention to the fundamental aspects of what people need in their relationships with other people causes more damage than repairing anything. How do we rebuild trust, respect and engagement when our tools push for a win/lose outcome?  Where is the scope to have a conversation about something that’s gone wrong between two people at work?  Where they can be sure that they will be treated with respect; will have the opportunity to be heard; and where they can explore the other person’s perspective, and then co-create an acceptable solution?

When I was trained as a mediator we learnt that mediation is about helping the parties to find the best acceptable solution to the conflict AND about restoring their relationship. If the employer’s policy doesn’t allow for these options then what is the mediator to do? (The answer to this question is that a mediator wouldn’t be called in – an investigator would be briefed, to make a determination of fact. Unfortunate, really, because there are such wonderful benefits to be derived from rebuilding trust, respect and engagement.)

I believe there is a great deal of work to be done in rethinking how labour, management and employees engage.  There are many Canadian employers that now have internal mediators and conflict coaches, but they are outliers – the exceptions.

Today I came across this interview with David Liddle, a mediator in the UK. He says it so well I want to share it with you.  I’d love your feedback on it when you’re done. (I like the way Liddle talks about “dispute escalation policies”, where he describes HR policies as “lacking compassion”, and how he advocates for the remodelling of policies to mirror the values of the organization.)

 

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