Effective leaders hold themselves accountable for establishing work environments that provide safety and respect while helping the organization meet business and financial goals. Effectively handling conflict encompasses both of these objectives.
Craig E. Runde and Tim A. Flanagan
This essay takes a look at some conflict considerations that management should be aware of and factor into their daily management strategies. It includes current local and international conflict studies and best practices, and should form an essential part of modern middle to senior corporate management focus.
Updating the place and importance of disciplinary inquiries
In my national workplace conflict consultancy we notice that the majority of employers view the disciplinary process as:
(a) an unavoidable workplace irritation;
(b) that should be disposed of as quickly and cheaply as possible, and
(c) as a process which is essentially damage control.
Senior management that are not directly involved in such disciplinary process are hardly consulted, and may only become aware of such conflicts as part of an annual statistic survey, a cost debate or when such conflict has escalated to more formal dispute resolution (such as the CCMA) or even litigation. Decisions as to the outcomes of these processes are often predetermined by designated employees such as HR managers, or wholly or in part outsourced to external consultants who have little or no advanced and current knowledge of the company’s current management goals and dynamics, and who are similarly involved in simply following the past of least risk and direct costs.
This results in important decisions, with significant cost and other risk implications, being taken at crucial times by people who may be unskilled, unaware of all of the current facts and considerations and/or inexperienced in all of the moving parts and leadership considerations that may have been relevant upon a detailed and more considered investigation.
Counting the costs of mismanaging disciplinary inquiries
In approaching internal disciplinary inquiries as necessary evils, as grudge events to be approached as hostile environments and events that have to be disposed of as quickly as possible, management runs the risk of incurring direct and indirect costs that are as unnecessary as they are harmful. The direct costs of how internal disciplinary costs are managed are of course often quite easy to anticipate and assess. These include the cost of internal personnel and consultants involved, settlement or severance packages negotiated and agreed upon, external costs such as legal costs, expert witnesses and judgments, awards and settlement packages. These costs can, at least while the process is still an internal one, be budgeted for and managed.
The indirect costs involved in getting the management of an internal disciplinary inquiry wrong are far more difficult to discern and to manage. These include the loss of valuable staff that could and should have been retained, the retention of staff that should have been dismissed, wasted costs incurred during the disciplinary inquiry (such as salaries payable during the process, unnecessary postponements and delays), and then the very significant costs that are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify, such as the loss of production, the loss of motivation and dedication, the harm done to important workplace relationships, internal silos and alliances created or harmed, workplace culture being affected, branding and image damage and so on.
Is it really responsible and skilful management practice to budget these costs and losses into the larger strategic picture and be done with it? What about the lost opportunities, the improved workplace culture, productivity, team motivation, performance enhancements and overall better leadership opportunities that fall by the wayside if the only approach is one of damage control?
Important additional management strategic considerations Management does not always bear in mind that any further assessments of the work done during the internal disciplinary process is the set of facts that a subsequent dispute resolution forum such as the CCMA, Bargaining Council or court will be dealing with. That snapshot of events as they were assembled, presented and argued as at the time of the hearing will, more often than not, be the facts and arguments that the employer will be limited to if the conflict goes to the next level of resolution. The tacit management acceptance that lawyers or consultants can later on “fix” initial mistakes, oversights or strategical miscalculations is therefore completely misplaced. The facts and arguments as presented at the time of the disciplinary inquiry will, in all but the rarest occasions, be the facts and arguments that management will be armed with at such subsequent conflict events.
Having left that to junior, untrained or inexperienced staff is an obvious and prevalent management error. Arguable the biggest, and most persistent management failing with regard to internal disciplinary processes remain the observable fact that workplaces continue to deal with workplace disciplinary matters as a set of symptoms. The true causes of these conflicts are rarely understood, rarely assessed properly as relevant to that particular workplace or department, and then dealt with as recurring symptoms, never getting to the true causes of such workplace conflicts. This inevitably leads to cyclical, repetitive offences and behaviour problems, ranging from the various degrees of misconduct, poor or under- performance, absenteeism, poor staff retention, team demotivation and even racial or class tensions.
A few practical improvements to workplace internal disciplinary inquiries and processes
This workplace conflict problem is one that hardly requires any capital outlay to improve quickly and measurably. It entails a management refocus and a few once-off internal adjustments, and the benefits of this modernized disciplinary inquiry process can be achieved and managed immediately. We look at a few here, with a more detailed treatment of the topic to be found in Chapters 3, 5 and 6 of my new book “Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa” (available on Amazon and direct orders):
(i) Train selected senior management and / or teams to understand workplace conflict and how it causes and influences workplace discipline and performance;
(ii) Identify and, where necessary appoint suitable staff members to guide and run these processes, especially the internal disciplinary inquiry process, so as to give full effect to the understanding reached in (i) above;
(iii) Make small but important adjustments to your internal disciplinary processes so as to give effect to this modernization, such as an internal mediation level and option, increased communication skills in conflict assessment and management, earlier detection and so on;
(iv) Ensure that one or two designated individuals or teams are coached sufficiently (to your industry and business) so as to be a conflict expert, so that traditional workplace offences, policies and processes can primarily be dealt with as conflict management and resolution, not as the recurring symptoms of these conflicts. Ensure sufficient skills transfer internally, and expect a measure of internal resentment, insecurity and objections initially;
(v) Once in place, ensure that these designated individuals or teams do an internal conflict audit so as to assess and identify the true causes of workplace conflict as relevant to your specific industry and your specific business, and design and implement suitable internal procedures and remedies, such as improved communication opportunities, skills transfer and conflict competency among staff members. If necessary, let this initial assessment and action plan be done by an external expert;
(vi) Ensure that your internal disciplinary processes and the involved staff members receive annual updates and sufficient training to remain competent in this important discipline. Outsourcing some of those functions, such as chairing these disciplinary inquiries to external experts is a healthy and sensible practice, but the cases still need a certain level of skill and knowledge to be adequately collected and presented. Remember our discussion about the limitations on subsequent additions or amendments to the evidence as presented at the inquiry itself;
(vii) Ensure at some practical level that these disciplinary inquiries are monitored and managed by at least one senior management member or team so as to ensure that the overall conflict understanding and goals discussed here are understood, maintained and reached on an ongoing, live level, not as an end-of-year boardroom statistic.
Our brief discussion here has shown the ongoing problems with workplace conflict rather self-created and perpetuated by South African business leaders and management, the observable and hidden costs involved in those management errors, and also how relatively easy, quick and cost effectively this position can be improved in a practical, measurable manner. These effective methods of dealing with necessary workplace conflict is all a part of the level of conflict competency required of modern business management and leadership. With these developments in conflict studies and best practices any ongoing workplace risks and costs outside those solutions have really become a management choice. There is an easier, better way to deal with workplace conflict and internal disciplinary inquiries, and those that are making these changes are creating an observable advantage in their businesses.
Resource list, references and suggested reading material
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on email@example.com for any further information)
© Andre Vlok January 2023