To manage disputes successfully, the organization need only maneuver the dispute into a forum most to its advantage to attain lower costs (transactional and outcome), a quicker speed of resolution, or simply a higher probability of a better outcome.
This article deals with a few practical conflict management considerations that employers, team leaders and HR personnel involved in such processes can apply. It presupposes that such personnel is aware of the fact that disciplinary processes should be late stage interventions in workplace conflict, and that there are other, more effective conflict management methods to deal with most such events much earlier on. The article also does not deal with substantive or procedural issues, and each employer should where necessary obtain independent advice on such concerns.
Workplace disciplinary processes and conflict management – the backdrop to disaster
The national South African workplace experience shows a high level of badly managed employment conflict when the stage of the internal disciplinary hearing is reached. A mostly unnoticed mix of delayed interactions, miscommunication, negative perceptions and conflict rigidity is invariably the backdrop against which these processes play out, with the predictable results of aggression, a lack of trust, a complete absence or severely limited possibility of constructive problem solving solutions, and the inevitable post-process further litigation and referrals to the CCMA and Bargaining Councils. The contents of written hearing notices, arbitrary and unprocedural suspensions of staff, hallway gossip and bad information management, a rushed process and a general air of inevitability all contribute below the surface to do tremendous harm to all involved. Much of the risk and harm flowing from this process stem from employers at this stage merely ticking the procedural boxes as they see them, with further conflict escalation guaranteed.
Add to this a non-existent or already frayed workplace relationship with union representatives now called in to participate in this process, and the stage is set for some very negative conflict outcomes.
Management’s decisions at this stage are often based on one or more or all of three strategic mistakes:
(1) That these processes are peripheral to the business and its main activities and concerns,
(2) That ticking the procedural boxes and a paint-by-numbers approach is sufficient to reduce or remove the risks to the business; and/or
(3) The system is the best option available under the circumstances, that this is how everyone does things.
We focus here on a few conflict management strategies for the employer and the actual staff involved (normally as company representative or initiator). A separate future article will focus on such strategies for the involved employee, and the presiding chairperson should, where possible, be an independent and external party.
The employer is of course the party that carries much of the risk in this process, and any mistakes, be they procedural, substantive or strategic, all invariably end up as costs somewhere in the employer’s books, be they direct costs such as adverse CCMA awards, legal costs, or indirect costs such as team disruption or high staff turnover, loss of or reduced production, time spent in such internal and external processes by witnesses, an increase in internal polarization and workplace conflict levels and so on. The wise modern business leader therefore knows well that to reach this stage of an internal disciplinary process should be limited, and used only as a conflict management tool of last resort in appropriate situations. The best way to deal with these risks is still to avoid the risks altogether, without ignoring or minimizing the causes of such conflicts.
The following examples should set the employer thinking of an effective workplace disciplinary strategy:
1. Early detection is key. Every late stage hostile internal disciplinary process can be traced back to employment system failures, unresolved minor incidents, inconsistent discipline, badly managed perceptions, poor or miscommunication, ignoring or delaying issues important to staff that then become toxic conflict causes, and a general lack of conflict management knowledge and skills amongst involved staff members. Understand, detect and resolve these issues as priorities. This saves time, money and reduces risk.
2. Train yourself and selected senior management members to have an important change of heart and mind about these workplace conflicts. Stop seeing them like hostile grudge events. Until we get there, you have a big role to play, and these wrecking ball internal hearings should never come as a surprise to management. Stop seeing these occurrences as “HR problems” or similar external events done to you. You get the disciplinary hearings that you have built, earlier on. Make the important mind shift to see all internal disciplinary processes, of whatever size or complexity and at whatever level, as clear, visible signs of human conflict, and that you hold the keys to the distinction between constructive and destructive conflict in your business. This subtle but crucial change opens up new insights, new options and new solutions that will transform your workplace and the risks and costs that we have mentioned earlier.
3. Adequately select and train staff to understand and follow through on your management mind-shift in 2 above. Traditional HR qualifications often aim at that box-ticking procedural approach, which brings you back to the risk and the harm we dealt with earlier. There is a small but significant number of companies in the South African corporate world we see an unintended but marked difference between senior management’s understanding of workplace conflict management and the daily application thereof by HR staff. The test in successfully transmitting senior management’s understanding lies in enabling the hands-on staff dealing with the actual processes to be able to understand and apply these new tools. This can be trained and coached internally, with a full internal skills transfer the attainable end goal. While appropriate instances should be, at some level, be entrusted to outside experts such as conflict management experts or suitably qualified attorneys, these consultants may not be as much connected to your workplace culture and ethos as an internal person may be, with nuances in advice flowing from that.
4. Flowing from the progress in items 2 and 3 above, ensure that your internal processes and structures are adapted to reflect these approaches and understandings. This can be as simple and as cost effective as adding a mediation level to your existing processes, upgrading your existing documentation used during such processes, and identifying conflict causes and triggers caused by the structures and system itself. Consider having an expert in dispute system design (DSD) designing your workplace environment a system that will reduce and structure future conflicts as a management tool.
5. Internalize these processes and improvements across all relevant levels not as soft options, but as effective modern conflict management tools, designed to bring a new balance to the employer’s concerns as well as the employees’ rights and dignity. Where necessary, educate all involved on the science and facts behind such processes. Help people to understand why processes exist, not just what their outcomes are.
Involved employees, such as initiators, evidence leaders
Employees used in these internal processes are often inadequately trained even for the most basic of processes, and they then find themselves involved in highly complex conflicts which have very costly consequences. While such processes may often, on the face thereof, simply appear to be something “John stole from petty cash”, modern employment disputes often involve extremely complex substantive and procedural questions of law and conflict management. These employees can take note of the points discussed above under the employers’ heading, and add the following examples of strategies to their skill sets.
1. In ways subtle and not-too-subtle, push to be adequately trained for the conflicts that lie ahead. Your career and reputation is as much on the table as the employer’s risks. This should encompass the crucial change from simply HR related concerns and strategies to a deeper and better understanding and ability to work with what all of these events really are in essence: human conflict. No-one wants more work, much less enduring training or coaching, but a bit of intense work now will demonstrably safe you time and problems later on. Work as hard as you can manage at your conflict competency: know how to identify and use practical concepts such as conflict escalation, differentiation, integration and the various conflict levers at your disposal during conflict. Once you have become comfortable with these skills, you will always be alive to them, and the options and solutions they bring you, even while the processes continues along the surface with the apparent issues at stake, for example poor work performance, misconduct and so on.
2. Ensure that you have as informed as possible a picture of the route that a conflict has taken before it ends up on your desk. See the conflict causes and triggers, the escalations and perceptions. While that may all be water under the bridge and too late to do anything when it gets to you, it will allow you to access a few more creative options and solutions, and you will, at the very least, understand the charged employee and her position a bit better.
3. Play an active and ongoing role in ensuring pressure release points along the way to those end-of-the-road hearings. Create effective and practical solutions where appropriate. Once you understand conflict at a more advanced level you will see how unnecessary all-or-nothing hearings often are. By including a mediation level for lesser offenses, as a practical example, employees are handed options to resolve and improve their conduct long before they enter into battles for their economic survival. People are often quite prepared to make changes and accept responsibility for their conduct if only they are made to feel heard and understood. Conventional disciplinary processes often miss that point, and the fact that you can state your side of the story during a hostile hearing is simply too little too late.
4. Ensure a tangible level of respect and dignity to all such processes. Again, this has nothing to do with being nice or using soft options, but in ensuring a more effective management tool. Regardless of the charges involved, the histories and personalities in play, the operational pressures and the importance of specific outcomes, always treat those involved with focused courtesy and professionalism. Nothing adds more extra and unwanted conflict causes and triggers than some of these late stage free-for-all shouting matches. Incidentally, any such lapses of professionalism will also no doubt return to haunt you at post-hearing processes.
5. Use your conflict knowledge to see every hearing, every disciplinary event, as data to improve the employer’s workplace conflict and disciplinary system. Not a single event happens in isolation, and none should be finalised as an isolated occurrence. Conflict, even the simplest examples thereof, always has much to teach us – about our processes, our expectations, our commercial goals, and ourselves.
Workplace conflicts and disciplinary processes have gone through exciting, measurable changes in recent years. New tools are available, all easily implementable and manageable in the hands of modern management. None of these approaches and strategies are soft options, and they stand their ground against older disciplinary approaches. A high number of South African workplaces still treat these disciplinary processes as peripheral threats, as hostile events done to the employer, as costly and harmful threats to be endured, with costs and adverse awards and judgments budgeted for. This is an extremely outdated approach, and as these few practical examples show, there are better, easily managed solutions available.
Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading
1. Working through conflict by Joseph P. Folger and others (9th edition), Routledge (2021)
2. Conflict management for managers by Susan S. Raines, Rowman and Littlefield (2020)
3. Dangerous Magic by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2022)
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on email@example.com for any further information) Andre Vlok May 2023