Workplace conflict skills gap plagues managers

by HCA19 Aug 2009

A new survey highlights the importance of Australian companies developing the skills and confidence of their managers to resolve conflict in the workplace. Management consultancy HR Advantage surveyed HR leaders and operational managers of medium to large organisations (100+ staff) from the Queensland and Victorian private and public sectors in June/July 2009.

The Managing Internal Complaints survey found the top four factors HR leaders and operational managers felt should be improved were:

  1. Training for HR staff and line managers in handling workplace conflict
  2. Timeliness/speed of response
  3. Following agreed procedure
  4. Providing a culture where complaints are seen as opportunities to resolve issues

HR Advantage director, John Scoble, said 86% of respondents felt that their company's line managers had a low or variable skill level to deal with internal complaints, and organisations' priority for improving and building these skills should be directed to line managers.

"We found that many line managers don't have the confidence or skill to resolve inter-personal conflict and are reluctant or slow to respond when issues arise," Scoble said. "On the positive side, the survey found 40% of organisations had conducted training in managing complaints in the past 12 months."

Scoble said organisations often have long-term or difficult performance issues which remain unresolved for many reasons. Internal HR resources are often overstretched or under-resourced; managers often choose to live with under-performance and inappropriate workplace behaviour rather than risk intervening and potentially worsening the situation.

"The best placed companies are those who spend time putting systems in place to prevent issues arising, who intervene early to address issues before they become crises, and who respond quickly and effectively if issues do reach crisis point," he said.

"This requires managers who are skilled, and supported to be able to address issues as they arise. This often involves enlisting support from experts outside the organisation on issue identification, performance management practices, team building, diversity training, management coaching and other such strategies.

"We see a range of positive strategies organisations use: coaching managers to address conflict, improving team processes and effectively applying performance management and development practices with their staff. This builds a positive culture and prevents conflict escalating to a damaging level - it also adds valuable skills within the organisation," he said.

Policy/procedures are in place
The survey found that the basics of conflict management, including policies and procedures, were in place, but companies were let down when workplace behaviours do not meet company expectations. All organisations surveyed had policies dealing with Equal Employment Opportunity, harassment, codes of conduct, grievances and/or discipline. Seventy-five per cent of HR managers have reviewed these policies and procedures in the past 12 months.

HR staff training may be an issue
The vast majority of respondents reported that in the past year their organisation had dealt with internal complaints, using a wide range of interventions including informal processes (used by 80%) to formal investigations (70%), mediation, coaching, team-building and training and development initiatives. 

Only 50% believed their HR staff were adequately trained to deal with internal complaints.
"Less experienced HR staff need training in how to advise on resolution of workplace conflict and how to conduct investigations if required. If any skill could be bolstered for HR staff, it should be conflict resolution skills," Scoble said.

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