The most highly publicized and best example of conflict in the work place is the Los Angeles Lakers. We saw throughout the season the disputes between Kobe and Shaq, Kobe and Jackson, Peyton and Jackson. We saw that this conflict lead to performance problems: Kobe’s refusal to shoot when they played Sacramento before the end of the regular season, Malone striking a Detroit Piston Fan, and the ultimate breakdown, the dismal loss in the finals to the Detroit Pistons. But the conflict was so embedded that it did not just affect performance but the entire organization: Jackson leaving, Shaq packing it up to Miami, Kobe entertaining thoughts of being a Clipper, and Malone still uncertain as to whether he will go or stay. This is the ultimate dysfunctional organization that stems directly from conflict that lead to the dissolution of the team.
It is time that the Lakers organization realizes that conflict cannot be resolved by firing the coach or trading a player. Conflict is inevitable. If it is handled well, it can lead to constructive dialogue, needed change and ultimately resolution. If it is handled poorly or left unresolved, it can disrupt relationships, affect on the job performance and lead to costly and time-consuming litigation. With the Lakers they may not be worried about litigation, but the conflict has bankrupted the values that led the team to three championships and will ultimately lose the loyalty of royal fans. The Lakers are a prime example of the reason for the rise of Alternative Dispute Resolution Systems in the workplace. A dispute resolution system preserves relationships, provides durable resolution of disputes, preserves confidentiality, avoids litigation, and maintains management’s control over the process. Large businesses are finally embracing Dispute Resolution Systems in the workplace and are finding that a majority of conflicts are being resolved.1 However, small organizations, out of necessity, have always had a system to resolve conflicts and they have taught a valuable lesson on how to design and implement a dispute resolution system in the workplace.
A Dispute Resolution System Involves Everyone
A dispute resolution system has to involve everyone. Management employees, owners, CEOs and Presidents cannot be exempt from participating in the system. It is not a system designed by a consultant for the non exempt employees. Small organizations of less than 50 employees have taught us a valuable lesson in this regard. In a small organization, all employees, owners and managers interact with one another on a daily basis. The organization becomes instantly dysfunctional if an employee(s) refuses to communicate with other employees. It is a must that all employees communicate with each other. Small Organization Lesson number 1: A Workplace dispute resolution system must involve everyone.
A System That Resolves All Conflicts
Organization that employ from 50-100 employees has advantages and disadvantages: everyone knows everyone else, including all about their personal lives. This can create conflict in the workplace, if you have an employee always complaining to a co-employee about her couch potato husband, her unruly teenager or her desk chair that is hurting her back. In a small organization, these complaints cannot be ignored and must be addressed. Many large organization views a dispute resolution system as only addressing filed actionable claims such as sexual harassment, discrimination, workers’ compensation or wage and hour violations. However, a dispute resolution system addresses all conflicts in the workplace, whether they are actionable claims, other workplace disputes or personal employee complaints. For the co-worker who has to listen to the personal complaints of a co-worker, this can create an intolerable working environment. For the employee who has many personal issues, this must affect her work performance. Many personal complaints or workplace disputes are usually a precursor to a claim that is actionable. Addressing those conflicts will make happy employees and decrease the actionable disputes. This does not mean that the employer becomes a therapist. However, it does require an employer to address employee morale and personal complaints that maybe disrupting not only to the complaining employee’s work performance, but that of the co-employee. Take a lesson from the California Dairy industry, a tolerable environment such as California for cows, makes happy cows, and creates more production of milk that is turned into cheese. As a result, California has become the number one producer of Cheese.
The Natural Emergence of the Person that Handles Conflicts
Small organizations are fortunate because usually an employee emerges who has the skills and talents to handle disputes. This person is liked by the employees and the employees confide in this person, because the person listens, keeps all complaints confidential, is fair minded and knows who to approach to resolve complaints. This person becomes an ombudsman. The person is trusted by both management and non-management and is not necessarily a human resource professional. Smaller organizations do not have to spend time and monetary resources to locate or develop the person who will become the champion of resolving conflicts. In a smaller organization, this becomes a natural emergence. Through this natural emergence of the person who handles disputes in a small organization, this person must insure confidentiality, be a good listener, fair minded, and know who to approach or who should handle a dispute in order to get the dispute resolved.
Look to External Sources When Needed
Small organizations try their best to resolve disputes internally, but some employees see the internal methods as an employer dominated system with no chance of a fair resolution. Small organizations have embraced external features. In California, most employers, large or small, have binding arbitration agreements. However, small organizations have recognized that proceeding to binding arbitration is costly. As a result that before any formal claim is filed, they offer the employee the use of external mediation, by an independent mediator. The organization offers a list of mediators and the employee chooses the mediator, after the employee has had an opportunity to speak with the mediators regarding their credentials or bias in favor of the employer. For small organizations, when needed, providing the use of external mediators that are not associated with the organizations assures more neutrality. Small organizations have taught us that a system that utilizes both internal and external features, demonstrates to the employees that the employer values the employees by spending time and money to have a dispute resolved by a neutral party.
It does not take large Monetary Resources to Implement a System
Many organizations complain that they do not have the resources to implement a dispute resolution system. Small organizations have taught us that it does not take monetary resources to resolve conflicts. Resolution of disputes involves an employer’s willingness to address conflicts, to listen, and to take steps to resolve them. In a small organization, because of its size, conflicts have to be addressed and there is an employee who has the natural attributes to handle employee conflicts. Tap in on those resources and before you know it, you will have developed a workplace dispute resolution system, without expending large sums of money.
An Ongoing Process
A workplace dispute resolution system is similar to a house, it can stay standing for 50 or 60 years, but during those years it needs to be remodeled with updated parts in order to replace those components that have worn out or retired. A workplace dispute resolution system is an ongoing process that is ever changing and requires continual assessment. The framework may stay the same, but a change in management or new disputes may arise that will require different methods to address those disputes. If the workplace dispute resolution system evolves from the ground up, there is more likelihood that the framework will remain but the methods used in resolving disputes may change. It is a continuing metamorphosis.
Susan Carpenter shares her experiences as a mediation trainer in other cultures and how she approaches different systems.By Susan Carpenter
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