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Conflict resolution

May 21, 2019

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The writer is an industrial relations professional.
The writer is an industrial relations professional.

CONFLICTS among colleagues are bound to arise in any work environment for a variety of reasons. These may include how work assignments are distributed, differences of opinion in how work-related issues are handled, colleagues asserting superiority over each other, clashes of personalities, etc.

Disagreements between people and groups arise in all walks of life, and the dynamics are often similar, but if workplace conflicts are not addressed in a timely fashion they can escalate into issues that significantly hinder the smooth functioning of work. Therefore, department heads should not shirk their responsibility of effectively resolving disagreements between their employees. At times, a head may have to assert their authority to put quarrels to rest, if they believe there is no just cause for the interpersonal conflict.

In one company that I worked in, the heads of two departments were constantly at loggerheads with each other. Both would CC their email exchanges to the head they directly reported to. Fed up with them wasting time over useless confrontations, their boss called them both into his office and firmly demanded that they cease this behaviour. They were told to return to his office in an hour’s time, either as friendly colleagues or with resignation letters in hand. Unsurprisingly, they chose the former.

In handling this conflict, the superior had to adopt a coercive approach, as he believed that neither had any real cause for fighting with the other, and that both should have been acting as role models for their respective departments. In most cases, though, heads will have to figure out the underlying cause of the conflict in order to devise an effective solution.

Properly addressing work disputes is key to effective management.

For the most part, issues between two employees may be easy to resolve since it is usually one of them who is not performing according to expectations of their duties. Then there may be times when both are partially at fault, making the task of the mediator a bit more difficult as they will have to find a remedy acceptable to both parties.

Settling collective conflicts between workers and employees, however, will require more management time, planning and strategy. The process by which the representative union of workers — the collective bargaining agent (CBA) — demands improvement in the terms and conditions of their employment is called ‘raising of industrial dispute’ under the law. This is one example of a collective dispute.

The Industrial Relations Ordinance, 1969, defines the industrial dispute as follows: “industrial dispute means any dispute or difference between employers and employers or between employers and workmen or between workmen and workmen, which is connected with the employment or non-employment or the terms of employment or the conditions of work of any person, and is not in respect of the enforcement of such right guaranteed or secured to him by or under any law…”.

The CBA can only sponsor collective disputes that include the combined interest of all workers. It cannot take up individual disputes and initiate proceedings before the court. If collective disputes are not handled by management properly, the situation for the company may become quite nasty, leading to disruptions in productivity and directly impacting profitability. The longer a loss-causing dispute lasts, the more a company will have to fight for its survival.

In case a dispute is not resolved through collective bargaining between an employer and the CBA, or during meetings with a conciliator from the government’s labour department, workers may resort to a lawful strike. Every effort should be made by employers to avoid such situations, as one can only assume but not be sure of where the situation will lead to and how it will end.

An employer may also raise industrial disputes if there are persistent issues that are hindering the smooth functioning of the business’s operations. After following due process as prescribed by the law, an employer may resort to a legal lockout if the CBA fails meet any of the former’s key demands. Nevertheless, while there are numerous instances of CBAs resorting to legal strikes when the bargaining process fails, there are few in which employers have instituted lockouts. The latter would prefer to forego their demands instead of going through the nightmare of shutting down their business.

Negotiating the CBA’s charter of demands while representing the management requires proper planning and requisite skills, as any wrong move or action — even by one individual — may be disastrous for an organisation. Negotiating effectively is a delicate art, which may be an inborn talent in some people but can also be acquired through experience and training.

Getting experience in successfully resolving workplace conflicts between individuals will prepare a manager to handle larger, collective disputes effectively and wisely.

The writer is an industrial relations professional.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2019