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  • Writer's pictureGraham Atkinson

Avoiding the HR Horror Show

Working as a HR Consultant, it’s fair to say you get to see your fair share of HR horror stories. Whether related to workplace conflict, poor management or inappropriate conduct there are enough tales to send a shiver down any leader’s spine.

And over the last couple of years, it’s started to feel like both the volume and complexity of disputes in the workplace is increasing rather than decreasing. It’s not necessarily a huge surprise and there are a likely to be a number of reasons for this.

The impact of the pandemic on mental health and workplace communication may well be one factor, as might the ongoing erosion of personal and professional boundaries. A challenging recruitment market might mean it’s harder to hire managers with the right skills and experience to address conduct issues effectively. Social media is often a factor, and in a world which seems increasing polarised and intolerant, it’s not hard to see why tension and dispute can spill into the workplace.

If you get this wrong as an employer, the cost can be frightening; not just financially (like this horrific £2.5m disability discrimination case), but also in terms of engagement, performance and workplace culture. If you need more convincing that this is important, you can browse the #HRHorrorStories hashtag on Twitter or read some of these examples of conflict in the workplace.

There are some proactive steps you can take though to ensure your organisation is well equipped to prevent and/or manage workplace conflict and conduct effectively.

1. Be crystal clear about your organisation’s values and expected behaviours. And we don’t just mean an eerily bland list of words. Your values should be tailored to your organisation and you should set out and articulate the workplace norms and expectations of behaviour that underpin them. This doesn’t have to be overly complicated and we’ve seen some of our clients do this really effectively on one page of A4. Once you’ve developed these, talk about them frequently and embed them into your HR processes, including your recruitment, induction and performance review.

At Glitch (a UK charity with an aim of ending online abuse and championing digital citizenship), the team spend time at every monthly team meeting discussing a specific value and giving examples of how they have lived that value.

2. Have robust processes in place for when things go wrong and communicate clearly how people can raise concerns or issues. Like most aspects of HR and people management, you can’t assume that, because it was mentioned once, 18-months ago at a team meeting that everyone will automatically know how to raise a concern, grievance or complaint. You’ll need to remind people regularly and make your policies and processes accessible.

3. Listen hard. The concept that you can only act on a concern or poor behaviours if someone raises a formal complaint in writing is (thankfully) consigned to the graveyard. As an organisation, and as a leader, you should be making sure that you have the right touchpoints to get early warning signals if something is going wrong. These might include staff engagement surveys, pulse surveys, exit interviews, 1-2-1 coffee catch ups or an active employee voice forum. Once you have these, then work hard to listen to what people are saying and act on it. Far too often we hear of organisations that ignore early alarm bells or don’t act decisively and end up paying the price when the behaviour / conflict escalates.

4. Develop your managers. It can take time and resource to deal effectively with workplace conflict or conduct issues. Invest in upskilling your managers so that they are competent in handling investigations and managing conflict. Make sure you have access to qualified and experienced mediators and allocate proper resource quickly into dealing with issues quickly and robustly. If you are proactive in building the capability and capacity within your organisation to deal effectively with these issues it will end up saving you money, time and/or significant risk if, and when, you are faced with a challenging situation.

5. Show leadership. As is often the case with issues that are endemically cultural, a strong approach has to be set out and role-modelled by the organisation’s leaders. Leaders should talk openly about values and expectations. They should also be proactive in spotting and calling out behaviours that are not ok - sometimes this might be privately and sometimes it might be in the moment. And when things go wrong leaders need to be bold and decisive in taking action. Gruenter & Whitaker said that “the culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate". There is no room for leaders to leave behavioural skeletons in the cupboard. Obviously, people have a right to be treated fairly and reasonably within any process, but ultimately the tone has to be set from the leadership.

The potential drivers for increased workplace conflict aren’t likely to go away anytime soon. Whether you’re an organisation with a strong, healthy culture or one that needs to go on a journey of change, it’s worth taking action now that will build capacity and set the tone for a positive, respectful working environment. Don’t let inaction now come back to haunt you in the future.

This guide to managing workplace conflict by SHRM is worth a read and gives some detailed ideas that build on this blog.

Atkinson HR Consulting run a training programme on Conducting Effective Investigations in partnership with Jacqui Clements Consulting. The programme is aimed at giving managers the tools and confidence to carry out effective workplace investigations. Find out more information HERE.


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