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Dealing with the fear of change

Contrary to what many might assume, large scale workplace disputes are not an inevitable consequence of corporate restructuring, redundancy or change programmes. Veteran “sorter-outer”, Harry Dunlevy, Director of HR consultancy at Independent, highlights some of the key factors to consider.

Managed sensitively and openly from the outset, change programmes can run their course without disruption, as I experienced at Northern Foods and more recently at EMI Music. However, there’s no denying that the impact of the recession has put even more pressure on minimising peer to peer conflict and maintaining progressive employer/employee relations. In its annual report, ACAS announced that it had dealt with 1,054 collective disputes in 2010/11, up from 905 in 2009/10; figures which highlight just how difficult those pressures have become. Avoiding or at least minimising disputes has to be a priority for business leaders, both for the long term profitability of their organisations and the economy at large.

The obvious losses are in cost and time; according to CIPD research*, the average employer faces annual costs associated with employment tribunal claims and hearings of £20,000 and spends more than 350 days per year in management and HR time handling disciplinary and grievance cases and preparing for employment tribunal hearings. The additional impact on employer brand, customer retention, employee morale and productivity levels only serves to augment the damage.

Add to this the Government’s proposals to instigate charges for employment tribunals and extend the period in which employees are protected from unfair dismissal from one to two years, and the need to effectively mitigate workplace conflict is more pressing than ever.

While HR has a fundamental role to play in managing disputes, in my experience and the hard evidence suggests, that identifying tensions and seeking early resolution before attitudes harden is the best way to avoid escalating conflict. Line managers, with the support of the HR function, are in the ideal position to achieve this. However, to be successful HR teams and line managers must possess the necessary people skills, be well prepared as a cohesive team and have received training in conflict resolution, often as part of their leadership development. CIPD research* demonstrates that employers who invest in upskilling line managers in this way experience significantly fewer tribunal claims than those who do not. However, if early, informal intervention does not succeed, mediation should be the next port of call, either using trained employees or outside agencies such as ACAS.

In the change situations I have managed, whether in highly unionised environments such as the car and telecommunications industries, or non-unionised sectors such as the media, a number of key principles are consistently apparent. There is no substitute for a comprehensive, detailed plan rooted in what the business is aiming to achieve. This should be developed not just by the HR function, but with the active engagement of line managers. The second critical element is excellence in communication. This includes identifying and simplifying the key messages which need to be communicated to those affected by the change, but also explaining what the change means to them at an individual level. In many cases it is this latter element that often acts as the touch paper that leads to conflict; a lack of understanding about the impact on individuals and recognition that for most people change is not always welcomed. A degree of empathy is essential and a preparedness to flex the plan if necessary as the change programme rolls out and gains momentum.

The benefits of effectively managing and ideally, preventing, disputes are substantial. Perhaps most noticeably there is an inevitable improvement in staff morale when employees feel their grievances are taken seriously and addressed promptly. Furthermore, when you consider that the most common source of workplace conflict is strained interpersonal relationships i.e. personality clashes, 44 percent according to a CIPD/OPP survey**, heading issues off at the pass, also significantly reduces employee absence figures and improves staff retention. Overall, the effect is enhanced employee engagement and better team working, which in turn impacts performance and productivity levels to the direct benefit of the organisation’s bottom line.

*CIPD survey 2007 Managing conflict at work
**CIPD and OPP survey 2008 Leadership and conflict management in the workplace
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