This document is part of the Developing Conflict Resilient Workplaces resource.

1. Introduction

In 2008 the Victorian Public Sector Commission (VPSC) embarked on a project ‘Taking the heat out of workplace issues’. The catalyst was the data on grievances and complaints from Victorian public sector employees made to the Public Sector Standards Commissioner (PSSC).

In addition to anecdotal evidence supporting the far ranging nature and number of conflicts, the results of recent People Matter Surveys1 consistently show low levels of confidence in the ability of organisations to resolve grievance issues.

The aims of the project were to:

  • establish the value of early, non-adversarial intervention in helping to resolve disputes and conflicts in the workplace
  • encourage and support the use of non-adversarial approaches across the Victorian public sector
  • serve as a means of embedding public sector values and employment principles into conflict management models (in particular the concept of ‘fair and reasonable’).

The project has successfully stimulated discussions across the Victorian public sector about how best to manage workplace issues. More people are talking to each other about what needs to be done, and how to do it differently; ideas are being shared.

Using an action learning model, the project has created a network of more than 100 people from approximately 40 organisations. Network members have been enthusiastic and active in making incremental changes in their workplaces. The ‘Taking the heat out of workplace issues’ project has also resulted in an implementation guide: Developing conflict resilient workplaces. In bridging theory and action, it is an important companion document to this report

This report argues that building conflict resilient workplaces is an important opportunity for the Victorian public sector (the sector).

Conflict resilient workplaces share core features:

  • They have integrated models for managing conflict. These models use a triage or intake assessment system to identify the root cause of a problem and support staff to decide on the best way forward. Formal processes are an important safety net in this system, but not the entry point.
  • In resolving disputes, they focus on people’s interests and needs, as well as rights.
  • Staff are skilled and confident in being able to deal with their own workplace issues early, without the need to access formal grievances and third parties.
  • Action is taken at different levels: to promote strong communication and relationships; to prevent things from going wrong; and to react appropriately when things do go wrong.

Some sector organisations are making a shift from refining their formal grievance processes (which are about reacting to conflict using adversarial processes), to promoting strong relationships and communication. They are skilling their staff to prevent the escalation of conflict. They are using a different language and new methods –particularly alternative dispute resolution processes such as coaching and mediation.

This report presents the evidence about the costs of conflict in organisations and the business case for taking a new approach. It is an invitation to the leaders of the public service and sector organisations to develop strategies that recognise the links between promoting strong communication through relationship building and reducing the risk of costly and disruptive workplace conflict.

It describes an integrated conflict management model that can be adapted by all organisations across the sector. The model requires strong early intake assessment or triage practices, to identify the root cause of a dispute, and supplements traditional grievance procedures with appropriate alternative dispute resolution practices.

In particular, this means organisations need to provide resources – particularly for training and development. Employees need to become skilled in using a range of alternative dispute resolution models (conflict coaching, facilitation, mentoring, mediation) and in knowing which approach is appropriate to which situation and at what time.

Footnotes

  1. People Matter Survey reports; Victorian Public Sector Commission