The modern Human Resources (“HR”) department keeps a company running by implementing crucial aspects of company policy, while managing day-to-day business activity. HR personnel are involved in the hiring of new employees, termination of employees, administration of benefits such as health insurance, and administration of payroll. In addition, they ensure the company’s compliance with wage and labour laws, as well as their own company policies. In recent years, however, the HR department has evolved into something more. Effective conflict management and alternative dispute resolution processes are increasingly important in the modern business setting, and are often performed by men and women from the HR department.
Conflict arises from many sources. A dispute may emerge between two coworkers or between an employee and management. It’s hard for the HR department to know when to step in and when to give the employees the chance to work out their own problems. Often, the dispute will belong to one of two broad categories and distinguishing them can help HR personnel determine whether or not the dispute requires intervention. The potential mediator must answer one question: Is the disputed issue a complaint or an allegation?
An employee complaint concerns routine matters of business. Employee complaints can vary from disagreements about the protocol for a project, to personality differences between coworkers. The important factor that differentiates a complaint from an allegation is that a complaint does not include any elements of illegality; whether it be violations of the law or company policy.
HR personnel cannot possibly mediate every employee complaint that arises. For example, it would not be a good use of the HR department’s time to manage a dispute between two coworkers who are arguing over space usage in the break room. Nevertheless, there are tools for employees to use in managing their own disputes and it is the responsibility of the HR department to provide these tools. HR personnel can assist employees by providing advice about how to address a coworker directly to discuss the dispute, or provide a neutral location for the parties to discuss their issues. Every employee complaint disserves attention, but an effective HR department can offer the type of counsel that will empower employees to take action themselves in resolving the dispute and moving forward. With the right training, every HR department can develop a system for conflict management that uses these problem-solving skills and encourages employees to use them too.
Problem-solving skills are helpful tools for employees in managing conflict and day-to-day disagreements, but they are often not enough to appropriately handle a conflict involving behaviour that is discriminatory, illegal or very serious. In the case of these allegations, HR personnel must step in to protect the employees and the company. Any delay or inaction despite receiving notice of a serious allegation can open the company up to liability in the future. For example, if an employee makes allegations of sexual harassment, the HR department should take immediate steps to investigate the matter and provide counsel to that employee. This is not a conflict that the employee should be encouraged to manage on his or her own.
The HR department plays an important role as a mediator and arbitrator of company conflicts. Knowing when to act in that role and when to limit HR involvement is the key to successful conflict management. With the right education and training, HR personnel can learn when and how to intervene in workplace disputes.