There is no ideal integrated conflict management system that will fit all organizations. Each organization must design a system tailored to its specific needs and culture. Each organization will, however, face certain design decisions that are central to the fairness of the system.
Contributed by John Ford, Founder, HR Mediation Academy
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The Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution (SPIDR)
In 2001 a committee of the ADR in the Workplace Initiative of the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution (SPIDR) prepared these guidelines for employers, managers, labor representatives, employees, civil and human rights organizations, and others who interact with organizations. This document explains why organizations should consider developing integrated conflict management systems and provides practical guidelines for designing and implementing such systems.
The principles identified in this document can also be used to manage external conflict with customers, clients and the public. It is the committee’s hope that these guidelines will provide guidance, encourage experimentation, and contribute to the evolving understanding of how best to design and implement these systems.
Why Organizations are Developing Integrated Conflict Management Systems.
Organizations generally move through four phases in addressing conflict. Organizations in the first phase have no defined institutional dispute resolution processes. Organizations in the second phase have introduced rights-based grievance procedures — some ending in adjudication processes such as peer review and arbitration — for the resolution of conflict. Today, all unionized organizations, most government agencies, and most medium and large-sized non-unionized organizations have internal rights-based grievance processes. Some organizations have moved to the third phase, by introducing specific “interest-based” processes, often some form of mediation, to supplement rights-based processes. Increasingly, organizations are moving to the fourth phase, by developing “integrated conflict management systems.” These systems include both grievance processes and mediation but go beyond them, introducing a systematic approach to preventing, managing, and resolving conflict.
Organizations have moved to integrated conflict management systems for several reasons:
First, grievance procedures and most mediation programs are not available to address many kinds of interpersonal disputes that cause significant workplace disruption. Moreover, many in the workplace are unwilling to use these procedures. An integrated conflict management system introduces and focuses on other tools of conflict management — referring, listening, anonymous problem identification and consultation, coaching, mentoring, informal problem-solving, direct negotiation, informal shuttle diplomacy, generic solutions, and systems change. These are the processes most employees are willing to use and are the processes most likely to prevent unnecessary disputes and to resolve conflict early and constructively.
Second, while the more formal dispute resolution processes such as grievance procedures and mediation are necessary, they are insufficient because they usually address only the symptoms, not the sources of conflict. An effective integrated conflict management system addresses the sources of conflict and provides a pervasive method for promoting competence in dealing with conflict throughout the organization.
For these reasons, when implemented effectively, integrated conflict management systems decrease the highly visible costs of conflict — government investigations, legal costs and lost time associated with defending against charges and lawsuits — and address many less visible costs of unaddressed conflict: loss of valuable employees due to transfers, stress leave, early retirement; movement to a competitor; loss of productivity; petty sabotage, waste, theft of intellectual property; increased health insurance claims; and the loss of public confidence when organizations are accused of allowing discrimination, harassment, unsafe working conditions, fraud, or other unacceptable behavior.
Effective integrated conflict management systems share these five characteristics:
- Effective integrated conflict management system provides options for preventing, identifying, and resolving all types of problems including “non-hierarchical” disputes between employees or between managers; and is available to all persons in the workplace — workers, managers, professionals, groups, teams involved in disputes, and those close by (“bystanders”) who are affected.
- Effective integrated conflict management systems foster a culture that welcomes good faith dissent and encourages resolution of conflict at the lowest level through direct negotiation.
- Integrated conflict management systems provide multiple access points. Employees can readily identify and access a knowledgeable person whom they trust for advice about the conflict management system.
- Effective integrated conflict management systems provide multiple options for addressing conflict, giving employees the opportunity to choose a problem-solving approach to conflict resolution, to seek determination and enforcement of rights, or to do both.
- Effective integrated conflict management systems provide necessary systemic support and structures that coordinate access to multiple options and promote competence in dealing with conflict throughout the organization.
Necessary System Support and Structures
To implement an integrated conflict management system successfully, an organization must develop support throughout its infrastructure, including:
- Sincere and visible championship by senior management and workplace/union leaders who communicate and implement the goals of the integrated conflict management system, often led by one person who is the acknowledged “keeper of the flame.”
- A “continuous” oversight body composed of representatives from all key stakeholder groups. Managing the system requires dedicated resources and constant communication among all critical stakeholders. Regular meetings of the oversight body are necessary to increase coordination and communication.
- A person or persons who function as an internal independent confidential neutral. It is essential that the person (or persons) who function in this capacity are independent and impartial, and that organizational policies protect the confidentiality of employees who speak with them. This person does not act as an advocate or representative for either employees or management, does not perform the functions of a collective bargaining representative, and performs in a manner that respects that role.
- A central coordinating point (office or group). This group spurs the development and implementation of the system, administers some of its resources, and monitors internal and external best practices. It ensures coordination between access points and works with the oversight body to ensure that the system is responsive to information it produces and to changing circumstances.
- System evaluation and monitoring mechanisms. Feedback loops ensure that there is a connection between conflicts, resolutions, identifying the need for systemic change, and assessing trends. Harmonious communication requires that each function knows of, talk with, and refer to others and that some accessible people know the entire system and any changes that take place in the system. Evaluation is key to a system’s success, as it informs the organization of the strengths and weaknesses of its design, thereby allowing the opportunity for continual improvement.
- Critical mass training, “just-in-time” on-the-spot training for individuals as needed, and educating managers, supervisors, union personnel and human services personnel.
- Alignment. The organization must ensure that its mission, vision, values, and published policies are in alignment with the philosophy of conflict competency and that its human resource strategy supports the integrated conflict management system.
- Institutionalization of incentives. Performance management and evaluation systems should reward continual as well as exceptional conflict management, resolutions which preserve or enhance existing relationships, and collaborative and creative problem-solving. Participation in integrated conflict management system processes should be an element of performance appraisal and management.
- Communication strategy. An interest-based communication strategy should be developed through discussions with workplace stakeholders and carefully implemented from the start of the process.
- Cost Allocation. Costs should be allocated in a manner that gives managers and employees incentives to deal with conflict early and effectively.
- Resources. Sufficient financial and human resources must be allocated to the system. While an organization must allocate funds and resources to develop and implement an effective, integrated system, the organization can expect that costs of maintaining the system will be matched or exceeded by savings resulting from conflict prevention and early and effective dispute resolution.
Design ConsiderationsThere is no ideal integrated conflict management system that will fit all organizations. Each organization must design a system tailored to its specific needs and culture. Each organization will, however, face certain design decisions that are central to the fairness of the system. Certain principles are critical to the fairness of processes within a system and to the system as a whole, including voluntariness, protection of privacy and confidentiality, impartiality of neutrals, qualifications and training of neutrals, diversity and accessibility, prohibition of reprisal and retaliation, respect for the role of collective bargaining agents, and non-preclusion of statutory and workplace rights
The guidelines provide practical guidance in several areas: 1) determining whether an organization needs an integrated conflict management system; 2) phases and components of design and implementation of a system; and 3) critical elements in designing and evaluation and monitoring program. The guidelines also include a description of some highlights in the evolution of conflict management systems in the United States and a short bibliography.
John Ford is the author of Peace at Work and founder of the HR Mediation Academy. He mediates, trains, and consults at organizations that have accepted the inevitability of conflict and are seeking to approach it with greater clarity and confidence. He was the managing editor of Mediate.com from 2000 to 2011 and is a past president of the Association for Dispute Resolution of Northern California.