Understanding Workplace Dispute systems

The organisation’s role in workplace dispute systems

In the ideal situation:

  • The organisation considers conflict to be a natural part of life rather than the product of individual ‘trouble-makers’. Working through differences of opinion can result in better analysis of problems and strategies.
  • The organisation views conflict as an organisational concern rather than an individual problem. It has consistent and coherent policies, procedures and practices to deal with negative behaviours.
  • The organisation identifies and resolves conflict quickly and fairly. The parties work together to achieve mutually agreeable solutions.
  • The organisation promotes respect and trust between all staff members.

The manager’s role in workplace dispute systems

In the ideal situation:

  • Managers model and encourage cooperation and positive work relationships in their team. They tell staff what is expected of them and take their work preferences into account.
  • Managers encourage open communication and informal resolution of conflicts.
  • Managers inform their staff about the dispute resolution resources available to them including policies, processes and counselling.
  • Managers don’t tolerate negative behaviours. They act quickly to resolve any situations that do arise.

The individual’s role in workplace dispute systems

In the ideal situation:

  • Individuals enjoy respectful and productive work relationships with others in the organisation. They feel their views and opinions are valued by others.
  • Individuals regard most disputes as an opportunity to analyse problems or strategies more thoroughly rather than a failure to agree.
  • Individuals clarify their manager’s expectations of them and report any problems or conflicts without fear of discrimination. They are aware of the workplace dispute systems in place and can obtain any supporting resources.
  • Individuals don’t tolerate negative behaviours and act quickly to address situations that do arise.

The litmus test for workplace dispute systems

Some important questions to ask about your organisation:

  • Can managers recognise the difference between positive and negative conflict?
  • Does the organisation have both informal and formal workplace dispute procedures in place?
  • Is the effectiveness of workplace dispute policies and procedures regularly evaluated?
  • Does the organisation promote workplace dispute policies and procedures to all staff?
  • Can individuals confidentially discuss their problems at work?
  • Do managers encourage staff to collaboratively resolve disputes?
  • Are individuals involved in collaborative decision-making and negotiation when engaged in conflict?


Measures that may be useful for confirming the quick check tool results or monitoring cultural change could include:

  • Unscheduled absence rate
  • Separation rate

A Dictionary of People Metrics

Case Study: Subtle Resolution

Donna complains to her boss Carrie that her colleague Mel has intimidated her on several occasions. She says Mel has stood behind her desk in a menacing way, crowded her out in the lift and made rude gestures at her.

Carrie finds the claims hard to believe. Mel is a good worker, though somewhat of a loner. Carrie has never seen Mel intimidate anyone but she agrees with Donna to monitor the situation over the next week and also not to raise the matter with Mel herself. While Carrie doesn’t witness any of the behaviours Donna described, she becomes aware of some tensions in the team. She tells Donna she will consult the HR director for advice on what to do next.

The next day a meeting is held between Carrie, a counsellor and a conflict resolution officer to discuss options. One option is to initiate an immediate investigation into Donna’s complaint, which would involve interviewing Donna, Mel and any witnesses. A second option is to arrange a conflict resolution workshop for the entire team. This second option is preferred because of Donna’s reluctance to speak up about her complaint and the opportunity to observe the teams dynamics during the workshop and possibly identify the cause of tension between team members. Additionally the organisation regularly holds such workshops.

At the workshop it becomes clear that Donna’s behaviour contributes significantly to her conflict with Mel and other colleagues. While Mel reacts assertively to Donna’s jibes and taunts, it is never out of proportion with the situation.

The team gets on better after the workshop. Donna accepts she has contributed to tensions at work, seeks the counsellor’s help in changing her behaviour and begins to interact better with her colleagues. She appreciates getting the situation resolved in a low-key way that did not cause her embarrassment. Mel never learns about the original complaint against her, but does learn about more constructive ways to deal with conflict.

Further Resources for Workflow Management