Are your poorly trained staff escalating conflict?

This post contains two case studies where the staff response to conflict or what they perceived as conflict escalated the problem.

Channel 7

Recently there was a 7.30 report about an intern being dismissed after she made a complaint. She’d complained about inappropriate language and behaviour from another employee, a more senior male reporter.

What made it interesting for me was that she’d recorded the meeting where HR delivered the blow remotely over the phone. It gave a rare opportunity to be a fly on the wall in one of these situations and showed how poorly trained and thought out the way that Channel 7 dealt with this issue was.

The report is only about 13 minutes and is well worth watching for learning opportunities. Could something like that happen in your organisation?

The young lady in question wasn’t featured on the 7.30 report which would indicate that she’s just been awarded a pay out with a gag clause preventing her from speaking. They had no power to stop her family though.

If you are the leader of an organisation or in HR how confident are you that you you’re your response to employee complaints isn’t going to see you end up in Fair Work or a private settlement?

Mismanage the process as much as this HR manager did and you’ll probably find yourself out of a job.

So how can managers and organisations deal with internal conflict without turning a mole hill into a mountain?

Don’t blame poorly trained staff. That is an organisational issue.

Start by getting some training in Mediation and Dispute Resolution. Learn how to have difficult conversations and explore conflicting issues, values and interests. This whole incident that made it’s way to the 7.30 report and an undisclosed payout did not have to happen.

What I’m seeing more and more is that the first resort for organsiations is to go to investigation. Rather than talking to the people involved they skulk around in the background or contract someone else to do their dirty work for them.

They use the power of hidden clauses in employment contracts to go through employee’s emails looking for some dirt they can use against them.

In this case they found some emails where she was joking around with another cadet journalist and used them to justify dismissal. Even when her friend found out that they were being used against her and totally denied that there was any bullying or harassment involved they relentlessly continued their course of getting rid of someone who they decided was a trouble maker.

So what are some of the things that the team at 7 need to learn? Here is my advice.

Get your team on the same page about what a complaint is and they should be managed

The only way that you can get people in a large organisation on the same page is by training them. Organisations too often put in place policies, procedures and practices that look good enough on paper and then think their job is done. It has only just started at that point.
Any policy is only as good as its implementation.

The HR managers behaviour in this case study had so many flaws that if she was following a policy whoever wrote the policy should be sacked!

Some of the issues included sending a support person from the room and not giving the intern any warning or allowing the opportunity to review and respond to the complaints. It was all hand in your phone and ID and get the hell out of here.

What their policy should have had was a process that explored the complaint and sought to resolve it without losing either of the employees or turning into a spy agency.

Training in developing and implementing a dispute resolution policy and procedures is available from organisations such as Mediation Institute.

They involve the leadership team and HR determining what should happen and then provide training in the skills needed to make sure that it does happen.

Teach using the mistakes of past poorly managed disputes

Organisations seeking to improve their dispute resolution can learn a great deal from the mistakes made in stuff ups (technical term) that make the news like this incident with Channel 7.

Dispute resolution doesn’t just relate to employee disputes of course. They also hit the news from Business to Customer mishandled incidents.

I was in the US earlier this year when United had a fascinating one.

In a nut shell they have a practice of overselling seats and had a full plane but needed to transport some staff from one airport to another. They asked for volunteers to make room but didn’t get enough takers. They then did a ballot of some sort and picked passengers who would be required by them to get off the plane to make way for the staff.

One passenger they picked was a Doctor who had a full list of patients the next day. He had to get home and so said that he would not get off the plane.

Their response? They called in the air marshals and literally dragged him off the flight that he had bought, paid for and been seated on.

What organisations need to understand is that everyone has a phone and the capacity to record your employees bad behaviour. Here is the disturbing footage.

In this case no doubt it became a power struggle between the employees, the security and the Doctor. To add to the drama the doctor had suffered trauma in his past due to political persecution and seems to have a trauma reaction triggered by the heavy handed treatment.

This did not have to happen. If the staff members had the training and procedures to determine that the doctor had a very legitimate reason for traveling and decided that he was not the drone they were looking for it would have been helpful. They could have then provided that information (with the doctor’s permission) to the rest of the plane and someone else would probably have given up their seat.

With hindsight they could have hired a private jet for each of the employees they wanted to transport and still have had change from what this stuff up (another technical term) would have cost them.

United is no stranger to poor customer service and negotiation skills. If you are not one of the 17.5 million people who have seen Dave Carrol’s United Breaks Guitars complaint video watch it now. It’s another example of how believing that your business is more powerful than an individual consumer is living in the past.

Teach Effective Interest Based Negotiation Skills

The negotiation skills of the staff at United and Channel 7 were both an old fashioned power based technique. They used what they saw as their power and ability to enforce their choices as being enough. Rather than listening to the other side they used force, figuratively or literally, to get their own way.

An interest based negotiation technique uses the power of collaboration to get outcomes that everyone can live with rather than the winner takes all strategies tried in both of these scenarios.

With better negotiating skills they would have known what outcome they wanted but had a more open mind and ability to adjust their response based on new information.

In both cases they had pre-determined what would happen and did not take into account new information provided. They won the battle but lost the war through their own inflexibility.

Teach how conflicts of interest can negatively effect a mediation or negotiation

Conflict of Interest is an area of incredible concern for me. I’m a mediator. I have an ethical obligation to make sure that I am impartial and unbiased when facilitating a conversation between people who are in conflict. I can’t start a mediation with a pre-determined outcome I’m trying to engineer. Yet poorly trained or untrained mediators do this all the time.

HR should never be mediating between people they know or if they feel that they can’t remain unbiased in their facilitation. Never.

Employees who are invited into a “mediation” with HR as the facilitator should ask if they are a Nationally Accredited Mediator. If they are not then they should ask for a professional facilitator. If they are then the HR manager has an ethical obligation to both parties and not just their employer. If they breach that obligation then a complaint should be made to the mediators Recognised Mediator Accreditation Body (RMAB) If you can’t find out who it is or you have been set up with a “mediation” with an unaccredited person claiming to be a mediator feel free to contact Mediation Institute on 1300 781 533 as our RMAB is happy to get involved.

We’re not anti employer. We’re anti abuse of process. There is a difference because abuse of process serves no one and just denies the opportunity to resolve an issue by burying it under further injustice.

Teach how to manage your emotions

Business went through a delusional period where emotions were seen as being irrelevant and nothing to do with the business sphere. We now know that emotions are an integral part of our interpersonal communication and just part of the package of being human.

Establishing rapport and empathy in a negotiation situation is critical to good outcomes. We simply can not ignore peoples emotions and think that we can get a successful outcome.

Likewise you can’t afford to lack the ability to control your own emotions. Lashing out in anger, failing to speak up if you have a passive aggressive pattern and all the other strategies people use rather than discussing and resolving issues, really don’t work. Sometimes they can be effective in the moment but long term the only way to resolve an issue is to understanding it and negotiate a resolution.

Emotional intelligence is a skill that those who have it learned it. Those who don’t understand emotions, are uncomfortable with emotions and most of all don’t know how to control their own emotions and their impacts on their thinking need to learn emotional intelligence and emotional control.

Learn active listening and how to build relationships

When people reach the mediation table they have usually adopted an avoidance strategy to some extent. They don’t like the conflict or are worried about the consequences of outbursts so they stop talking to each other.

The problem is the only way to find out what the root causes of the conflict are and an acceptable solution is to talk and explore the issues. One of the things that I often have to spend considerable time teaching our trainees is active listening.

People are just not listening with the intention of understanding. Learning to step back from solution generation until you understand the problem seems difficult for many people. I’ve encountered the same problem in the past when teaching Root Cause Analysis.

People see themselves as “solution focused” and that is great but only once you understand the problem.

I could go on but if you have made it to the bottom of this post what I really want you to take away from it is that dealing with conflict is a learned skill.

With a good plan (dispute resolution policy and procedures) organisations can do their part in helping employees know what to do if a conflict situation arises. But that is only going to work if they have been trained in the system and processes and they have the skills to implement them. Talk to Mediation Institute if you are not confident that your staff can manage any situation without ending up in the news for all the wrong reasons.





Are your poorly trained staff escalating conflict?

by Paul Kenna Law time to read: 8 min