How to manage workplace grievances in Whitehall

Written by Rebecca Foreman on 22 March 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

Industrial tribunals are set to become more high profile this year, which could represent a reputational risk to departments, but there are a number of steps managers can take

Industrial tribunals are going to be a serious headache for employers in 2017. It’s the year when HM Courts and Tribunals is to start making verdicts public – and searchable online by issue and employer ­­– as part of its 'open justice' policy.

Pressure to remove fees for employment tribunals is increasing, with another court challenge expected to come to a head later this month. Fees led to a 70% fall in the numbers of cases from 2013 leading to a fierce debate over whether employees are being denied justice because of the costs involved (potentially up to £1,200), or if it has actually worked to weed out insubstantial cases. Either way, the end of fees is expected to lead to a sudden rush of cases bottled up over time across the public sector.

The civil service needs to look again at its grievance and complaint standards, making sure they are watertight; ensuring that any risks from poor practice and embarrassment from increased scrutiny at tribunals are minimised. But perhaps more importantly, that staff across departments have the skills to manage and deal with issues effectively and sensitively at earlier points, to avoid escalation and being exposed to risks from operational breakdown and damaged reputations.

The fundamental issue here is that managers in departments too often see any kind of conflict – even at the level of minors disagreements – as unwelcome and a problem, not seeing the positive value of a culture where people feel enough trust in their manager and colleagues to be able to talk about problems, grievances; where they can challenge established ideas and take risks. Secrecy and reticence only create a culture of mistrust, and puts a block on both innovation and the contribution from diverse experiences and perspectives. The result is a working environment that becomes rigid with uncertainty, bottled up grievances, and the kind of burble of low-level conflicts which have the potential to escalate. And with the potential for more tribunals with increased public scrutiny, this is exactly the type of high risk situation that departments need to work hard to avoid.

What’s needed is departmental leadership that demonstrates it can embrace the idea of ‘good conflict’, engender a culture of trust, encourage open conversations and manage conflict from its early stages.

In terms of practical actions senior manager in the civil service can take a number of actions. These include:

  • carry out a conflict audit to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your current provision in terms of what happens to complaints, whistleblowing, complaint handling, grievance resolution, performance management, absence management and the learning and development relevant to improving conversation and conflict management skills;
  • be a role model. Think through what it means to actively encourage ‘good conflict’, supporting opportunities for open conversations, respecting alternative views in your daily working interactions, building trust, provide opportunities for training your employees in conversation skills;
  • provide a consistent message about your expectations of line managers and their staff in terms of encouraging open conversations, and make it clear about support and development available;
  • ensure you have well trained people to hear your formal cases. When conflict reaches the formal stages of a grievance or disciplinary hearing, it is critical that the decision-makers involved, typically senior managers, are always consistent and untainted by subjective perceptions. No individual should ever be seen to be treated differently from another while also demonstrating the same behaviours. Managers need to have the objectivity and confidence to reach a determination against someone where the evidence leads clearly to that outcome – and sometimes that means training in how to weigh and assess the evidence fairly and consistently;
  • review your management training to ensure that it is fit for purpose. Some managers have the inbuilt skills to manage conflict constructively. Others, perhaps more technically minded, will need support if they are to have difficult or courageous conversations. Review your management programmes to ensure they include the soft skills involved in embracing positive conflict and defusing negative conflict.
  • motivate and train employees to have difficult conversations with each other and with their manager, for example in how to challenge colleagues’ banter or perceived manager’s bullying – skills which can be expanded to include how they respond to difficult situations with the full range of stakeholders working with a department.

It is also important to flag up the value of the Civil Service Mediation Service, staffed by the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and others. This is seen to have played a useful role in reducing the number of cases reaching the tribunal stage. The service mediators - many of which were trained by CMP Resolutions - have had a success rate of more than 80% in managing grievances and avoiding tribunals.

About the author

Rebecca Foreman is director of operations at CMP Resolutions. www.cmpresolutions.co.uk

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