When the gloves come off at work, it can be as distracting and unsettling for those on the periphery as those involved in the stoush. One thing’s for sure, before long everyone has either heard about what is going on or they are talking about it. Unless action is taken quickly to address the situation, what began as a small disagreement quickly evolves into whispers in the tearoom and sideways glances in the hallways, making everyone feel unsettled. Before long, you are dealing with increased sick leave, absenteeism and eventually either resignations, or arbitration. Getting to the heart of what is going on early and taking action can help avoid a situation spiralling out of control.

Often the most effective way to resolve employee conflict is to bring the employees together and with the help of a mediator, air their grievances. This is unless, of course, the dispute has evolved into serious misconduct or breach of company policy. However wherever possible, being proactive helps to quickly resolve issues that may have arisen as a result of a misunderstanding or difference of opinion. As with any relationship, talking through the issue with an independent, third party mediator can help everyone move on before irreparable damage or costly legal proceedings occur.

Being prepared and recognising that these things can and do happen means steps can be taken quickly if and when a conflict erupts. Training managers to identify and deal with conflict as well as knowing when it’s time to hold a formal mediation session to address the conflict can be key to smothering any smouldering emotions. Having a plan in place and taking part in role-plays can make sure HR executives can handle a number of situations best resolved through mediation. iHR Australia hold regular courses to guide participants through the key principles of conducting an effective workplace mediation, focusing on best practice process and the skills required of an effective mediator. Participants take part in a Workplace Reality Theatre where the facilitator and actors re-enact relevant mediation scenarios for group discussion.

When teams are underprepared, the situation goes unnoticed or no one knows what to do. Being on the front foot, while remaining objective is key – no one likes working in an environment with an air of tension and conflict. When people feel like no one is taking their feelings seriously, they may feel the need to take further action. One example of this is a recent case heard before the Federal Court in which an Indigenous graduate at a major Government Department felt “racially vilified.” The Federal Court pleaded with the Department and the employee to reach an agreement through mediation:

“We would … urge the parties to reduce the burden and expense of a new trial and avoid the uncertainties surrounding its outcome by participating in a mediation,” the three judges wrote.

Earlier, at an afternoon-tea, a co-worker had offered the graduate chocolate-flavoured jelly babies with the words, “Here are some black babies”. The same co-worker was later asked what sort of cheese he liked and replied, “I just like plain old Coon cheese.” After complaining about the comments to her superiors, the co-worker was counselled and apologised to the claimant who allegedly went on to experience further racial taunting, bullying and harassment. The case failed several attempted rounds of mediation and arbitration before being heard at the Federal Court. When court ordered mediation and an earlier session before the Federal Court were overturned, the graduate appealed. The case will be heard again unless the two sides can reach an agreement, as urged by the full bench.


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