Informal Options to Resolve Complaints

A previous post highlighted how easily workplace conflicts can get reframed as bullying or harassment complaints. Indeed, in many cases, by the time one or other person gets to the stage of making a complaint, many of the behaviours that each are exhibiting are very likely to be undermining or somewhat disrespectful to the other. That’s what we do when we are annoyed, frustrated or upset with someone! All of us have the potential to engage in these kind ofbehaviours – they are simply typical ‘fight or flight’ reactive conflict behaviours. It’s important therefore if someone does feel their working relationship with someone has deteriorated to the extent that they are looking for support or thinking of making a complaint, there should be a good range of options available to ensure that in the first instance, they are supported to think about resolving the situation rather than getting into a win-lose process.

  • Have a number of support options available. This is of course much more feasible in larger businesses and organisations. Most policies name a number of persons such as Human Resources Manager, Union Representative, Line Manager/Supervisor or other manager or supervisor. The Health and Safety Authority Code of Practice also refers to Contact Persons being available – trained volunteer members of staff who have a listening brief only. The main difference with Contact Persons is that an employee can have a confidential and off-the-record discussion to help them clarify their issues and explore how they might resolve or move forward with them. This minimises the formality of the discussion i.e. they are not putting a complaint on record with the organisation or company although in serious cases Contact Persons would have to consider reporting the matter on grounds of welfare of the employee in question.
  • Have the availability of external supports such as an employee assistance programme, mediation, conflict coaching, facilitation. Ideally these supportsshould be written into your policy in some way. Many policies nowadays have a piece on mediation which briefly explains what it is and how it works. However,I think it is important that even before this stage, there are options for employees that can help them figure out a way to resolve the issue for themselves. Most policies urge employees in the first instance to approach the ‘alleged perpetrator’ and seek to resolve the issues. How this approach is done is critical as it can easily become derailed and turn into an unconstructive and blaming conversation. Being able to get conflict coaching or support around this conversation can greatly increase its chances of success.
  • Even if the complaint comes in writing, consider mediation and encourage the parties to attempt this option. In my view, employers should wherever possible encourage people to engage in some sort of collaborative forum that aims to resolve rather than determine right or wrong. This is because in most cases,whatever chances you have of influencing negative behaviours through mediation or dialogue, an adversarial, investigative process – even where it makes a’complaint upheld’ finding – usually has little impact in terms of real change on the behaviour of one or both parties. It’s usually a question of winning the battle but losing the war.
  • Very often a situation between two employees lends itself more to a Line Manager mediating rather than bringing in an external mediator, especially where there is a good level of trust between the manager and two parties in conflict. For a start, it keeps the matter more informal as it can be set up easily rather than having to go through the financial and operational procedure of engaging an external consultant. Secondly, it sends a message that this is a situation that is causing some disruption in the workplace because of unhelpful conflict behaviours on each person’s part and cannot be tolerated. Thirdly, a manager can sometimes get both parties to the table more easily than if they are given a choice about participating in a formal mediation process and will often be able to do this at an early stage in the conflict and where relationships have not become too damaged. The key here is that the Manager gets coaching or mentoring so as to ensure they mediate effectively and that, in any event, their intervention doesn’t make the conflict any worse.
  • Have constructive and empowering conversations with someone who raises a complaint. If you are either in a human resources or management role and someone comes to you to raise an issue, rather than focusing in the first line on getting all the facts about when it happened, who was there etc – think instead about asking questions that will help the person think the issue through in terms of what they themselves could do. It’s so easy to feel that your role is to ‘fix’ or come up with solutions for them rather than to empower them to come up with solutions for themselves. A few questions you could try might be:• What is it you feel I could help you with most today?
    • What sort of options to you see open to you with regards to this situation?
    • What do you hope for?
    • What have you been thinking you might do next?
    • How would you like to see this being resolved?
    • What outcome do you want from this situation?
    • Imagine a point in the future where your issue is resolved. How did you get there?
    • How can you move this situation forward?
    • What can you do for yourself?
    • Where do you feel stuck in this issue?
    • What other supports do you have at the moment?
    • What’s the biggest challenge for you in getting this sorted out?