Tag blog

Tag blog

Unresolved Conflict

Conflicts will continue to occur in our working lives. Let’s arm employees with the tools to resolve them before they fester into an investigation.

When unresolved conflicts continue to fester and grow, they fill the ones in dispute with hard feelings of hopelessness, anger, resentment or outrage, these conflicts then take on new dimensions. These are the types of situations that often get tossed into the employer’s Respectful Workplace Policy. Generally words like, harassment, bullying, discrimination form part of the complaint. Often at the root of the conflict is a workplace miscommunication or work issue and almost always there is some form of power imbalance between the parties. 

Once the complaint is filed, employers usually are compelled to investigate the matter, either themselves or hiring outside expertise. At the end of an investigation there is a conclusion, as to whether there has been a breach to policy or not. This conclusion may resolve the issue as far as the employer is concerned, as a conclusion allows some form of employer driven action to occur, i.e. discipline, corrective action. 

What is left? The feelings behind the complaint and the conflict. An investigation does not generally resolve those feelings. Frankly, an investigation shouldn’t be trying to resolve the feelings, but looking instead at the evidence of the complaint. How can those feelings behind the conflict be dealt with in the workplace? Should they be dealt with? Whose responsibility is it to deal with these feelings?

We need to back-up and relook at how unresolved conflict is addressed in the workplace. We need to support and train supervisors and managers to recognize conflicts early, and to take remedial steps towards solving the initial issue so that conflict does not stay unresolved. We need to offer employees ongoing training in how to resolve differences, workplace conflicts, to give them tools in confronting and collaborating with others to resolve conflicts before they fester. We need to offer a service to disputants of moving forward in a way that will allow them to work together day-to-day while supporting them individually to look inward and learn their part in the conflict. Conflict takes two. It may be how the other person reacts versus initiates actions, but it still takes two for conflict to occur. 

It’s time to broaden our understanding of conflict, and to start looking at ways to assist those in conflicts so they learn a new skill, one that they can take forward in their working lives so they don’t fear conflict, but approach it with a more confident, collaborative manner.

Conflicts will continue to occur in our working lives. Let’s arm employees with the tools to resolve them before they fester into a formal investigation.

A Failure to Properly Handle an Investigation Leads to a Costly Award

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Ms Jones worked in a male dominated workplace for a City in Ontario. She was subjected to years of harassing behaviours, including sexual comments and touching and after trying to deal with the behaviour for years, filed an internal complaint. The City conducted an investigation. Ms Jones was unhappy with the response and felt that she would be subject to further harassment and retaliation. Ms Jones filed a Human Rights complaint against the harasser and some of the leadership with the City.

Ms Jones had brought her complaint to Mr Williams, who agreed that the behaviour was inappropriate and that it needed to stop. However, instead of dealing with the matter, he deferred the complaint to Mr Johnson who had direct responsibility for  the employees in question. Mr Williams did not contact a Human Rights Specialist and testified that it was his view that the matter did not meet the criteria for a complaint as set out in the City’s policy document. Rather, he believed the matter amounted to a conflict between two employees that should be resolved by the Manager.

Ms Jones took the matter to Mr Johnson as instructed but as he was on vacation, it was two weeks until she was able to talk to him. When she explained her complaint, Mr Johnson told her that he had spoken to Mr Smith about that type of behaviour in the past. Mr Johnson said that if she wanted to file a complaint, she would have to get a union representative, come back and see him. Mr Johnson told Ms Jones that her allegations, if substantiated could likely end in the termination of Mr Smith and he described Mr Smith as an old school employee who was not malicious but simply did not know any better. Ms Jones felt that Mr Johnson was trying to get her to decide not to file a complaint.

Ms Jones was not satisfied with the investigation and the communication at the end and felt that the behaviour would not stop as a result. There was a further incident of touching in the workplace and Ms Jones was forced to work the night shift in order to get away from Mr Smith.

Ms Jones asked for information relating to the investigation and discipline to Mr Smith but did not receive responses. Her Union tried to get information, unsuccessfully. Ms Jones filed a complaint with Human Rights. Her complaint relied on essentially the same information presented earlier, however there were also concerns of retaliation like manipulating the overtime schedule to deny her opportunity and excessive scrutiny of her work. Ms Jones contended that her workplace had been poisoned.

A single Arbitrator heard the facts of the complaint and analyzed the arguments and precedents set forth by both the Union and the City. The Arbitrator found that Ms Jones was subject to harassment in the workplace, that Mr Smith caused Ms Jones’s work environment to be poisoned on the basis of her sex, and that she was subject to reprisals after filing a complaint.

The Arbitrator turned to the question of the City’s liability and found that as a person in a position of authority, Mr Smith was part of the “directing mind” of the organization, such that his conduct with respect to Ms Jones effectively became that of the City. Consequently, the Arbitrator found that the City was responsible for Mr Smith’s behaviour. The Arbitrator also concluded that Mr Smith caused Ms Jones’s work environment to be poisoned, while he was a member of management, and found the City liable for the poisoned work environment.

The Arbitrator turned to the question of the Employer response and cited: “…Laskowska v. Marineland of Canada, supra [cited in Harriott v. National Money Mart, supra],…” for evaluation of the Employer response. The Arbitrator found that the Employer had sufficient policies but failed to properly educate the employees. The Arbitrator ruled that the Employer did not treat the complaint seriously and did not deal with the matter promptly and sensitively. The Arbitrator ruled that the investigation was flawed, in that the HRS did not interview witnesses to the events described in the complaint. The Arbitrator found that the City failed to take appropriate action to ensure that Ms Jones’s workplace would remain safe and that no further harassment would occur, namely, removing Mr Smith as her supervisor. The Arbitrator found both Mr Williams and Mr Johnson personally in breach of the Human Rights Code. The Arbitrator ordered general damages against the City in the amount of $25,000.00, as well as stipulating some training and eduction in the workplace.

Lessons From The Road – Investigation Notes

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One of the questions that I am often asked in training, and with increasing frequency in the past few years is: Can I take notes in an interview on my laptop? This is usually quickly followed by the proclamation: “I type a lot faster than I write”.

My answer has always been a reluctant “Do what works for you, but let me explain why I don’t do that” as I draw upon my stored experience to provide real world examples.

Today, while travelling to Calgary for another interview, one in which I will write my notes by hand and then transfer those to the computer using voice recognition software, I stumbled across an article that brought me some new thoughts that I wanted to share immediately.

The Title? “This is Why You Should Take Notes By Hand Instead of With a Laptop” The data for the article comes from a new study published by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer (from Princeton University and University of California respectively). It was found that students who took notes on paper learn significantly more compared to their laptop-addicted peers.

Turns out that laptop users type almost everything they hear without processing the meaning or devoting much thought to what it is they’re taking notes on. When you take notes by hand, you obviously can’t write down every single word uttered. So you listen, summarize, and list only the key points. Your brain is more engaged in the process of comprehension and so the information processed this way is remembered better.

Seems like a recipe for better Harassment Investigation interviews and on the path to better statements and more efficient use of time to me. You’ll find me in the note pad section of your local Staples!

Questions or Comments, I’d love to hear from you: