Taking the grief out of grievances

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It's best to air grievances effectively within the organisation or through external mediation, before they become tribunal cases

We are all familiar with the phrase ‘timing is everything’, and this is particularly crucial when dealing with conflict or grievances in the workplace. The sooner a toxic situation is addressed the better. Leave it too late and you might find a host of additional issues are added into the mix, which is not ideal when you are trying to smooth an already rocky road.

This seems to have been a common thread in my last four cases, which have all been referred to mediation following a grievance investigation, often as a tick-box exercise rather than a good resolution process. It is usually a ‘suggestion’ by the organisation to help parties work together again in a professional and collaborative way when it has run out of ideas of what to do.

If a situation has escalated to the point that either party wants to raise a grievance this is in itself a red flag that the organisation might not have intervened quickly enough or handled things well... if at all.

Grievance originates from the French verb grever (translated as to injure or harm). When either party is feeling emotionally ‘injured’ the organisation has failed them by not safeguarding their emotional health and by breaking the ‘psychological contract’ to protect them.

While mediation is an incredibly powerful method of helping people to understand each other’s viewpoints and to address their differences, it can only really work if both parties participate voluntarily and are committed to the process.

So herein lies the first problem. A grievance investigation usually delivers a binary outcome – a winner and loser, a right or wrong verdict – and this can often leave one of the parties even more aggrieved than they were before the investigation.

There is often anger and bitterness towards the organisation for appearing to take sides, for being unsupportive, and leaving one or more parties feeling let down. This in itself can lead to further issues, which in some cases can end up in a tribunal.

So what steps can you take to diffuse an already heated situation or a potential one brewing?

  • Look out for signs that an employee is struggling or not their usual self. There could be subtle indicators: a shift in tone in a meeting, eye rolling, blunt email responses, underhand comments, sharp remarks, disruptive behaviour... These are all pointers that something might be simmering.
  • Intervene early. A grievance is usually a last resort when people feel they have exhausted all avenues and nothing has improved or changed. Early intervention will reap a much more successful outcome.
  • Offer an ear and listen in the first instance. This is a very powerful way to let people know they are valued and important to the organisation. Ask what you might be able to do to make a difference to them in their situation and evaluate whether this is doable. If it is, action it.
  • If the situation reaches a stalemate don’t leave it or encourage the parties to sort it out themselves. In most cases this never happens and just adds fuel to a smouldering fire. Get specialist help if you feel you are out of your depth or can’t be impartial. It is at this point that mediation is very effective and also shows not just those involved but others in the organisation that you take the emotional wellbeing of your employees seriously.
  • Review your grievance procedure. Have you considered how effective it is and whether it could be rewritten as a ‘resolution policy’ with the focus on resolving the issues rather than delivering a right or wrong outcome?
  • Assess whether the organisational culture reflects the personality of the company. Does it encompass the values, mission, beliefs, ethics, expectations and goals of the business and are behaviours reflecting this from the top down?

Remember that if mediation is the recommended resolution process the greatest opportunity for success is if it is used as a preventative measure to stop matters escalating, and to help parties to address conflict with a solution-based focus rather than a win/lose approach.

Nicole Posner is a workplace mediator and executive conflict coach specialising in the psychology of conflict

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