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Human Resources

Mediating Employee Disputes

When to intervene and how best to help employees work through issues
University Business, Mar 2010

Several years ago, there were two secretaries at Jacksonville State University (Ala.) who worked in different departments. Neither got along with their boss. Their supervisors wanted to fire them but couldn't—as nothing was wrong with their job performance. The problem was simple: They just didn't like each other.

So human resources got a call, recalls Judy Harrison, assistant director of HR. "We just ended up switching [the secretaries'] positions," she says. "The personalities fit so much better and everyone was happy. So sometimes, there are simple, inexpensive things [HR] can do."

Employee clashes happen everywhere. An employee may feel a boss is insensitive or a peer is too chatty, or may dislike a faculty member's work style. If not handled properly, some disagreements can escalate to violence. We all know about the Harvard-trained neurobiologist who was an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. Last month she gunned down three colleagues and injured three others during a faculty meeting, possibly because she was denied tenure. While no school can be 100 percent bullet proof, many aren't sitting targets because they've developed effective programs or processes that not only help resolve workplace tensions, but also build workplace harmony, enhance productivity, and secure the safety of their employees.

Problems are usually identified and resolved within a several-hour meeting.

Take JSU, which supports roughly 1,000 employees and faculty. While HR promotes an open-door policy, its team generally watches from afar, only stepping in when requested, says HR Director Karen Davis. "Every once in a while we're dysfunctional, but we are a family. We try to follow the spirit of the grievance policy in that we give both sides an opportunity to air their concerns and try to find some middle ground or compromise that would be suitable to both."

Sometimes, policy misunderstandings cause problems—such as the time an employee at JSU complained to HR about his supervisor, who "strongly implied" that he had to go out to lunch with his coworkers almost every day and attend after-hours social activities. The employee didn't want to participate because he had family obligations after work and couldn't afford to repeatedly dine out. Yet, the supervisor practically insisted, making him feel uncomfortable. Once HR explained to the supervisor that employees couldn't be forced to participate in after-hours activities, the problem virtually disappeared.

In nearly every situation, Davis says, employees tend to resolve their own problems once HR helps them understand their boundaries, each other's viewpoint, and how others may interpret their actions or behaviors.

Still, there's no magic recipe for eliminating personality conflicts. All are valid, no matter how ridiculous they seem, like the time an employee was jealous of a coworker's flex schedule and began acting inappropriately toward that coworker.

Debi Alvord, associate director of HR and employee relations manager at Boise State University (Idaho), says a garden variety of complaints come across HR's desk, such as the one cited above. The school supports 2,000 employees and 19,000 students.

"We've had situations where employees can take a class during the workday and make up the time," she says. "But some employees in the same department [who have a different supervisor] may not be allowed to do that because their supervisor doesn't allow it. It can create some tension."

HR has to minimize the damage so problems don't escalate, lower productivity or create a hostile environment. You never know when a seemingly insignificant spat can turn violent. To control and monitor such situations, HR at BSU offers free assistance in three ways: mediation, facilitation, and coaching.

Mediation services are separate from BSU's employee assistance program (EAP). Mediators are trained employees, who completed a voluntary, weeklong certification program offered by the school in 2006 and 2007. (Due to budget cuts, the program was placed on hold.) But Alvord notes that nine out of the 16 employees who were certified are still employed there. She says mediation works best in resolving conflicts between two people. Problems are usually identified and resolved within a several-hour meeting. Yet employees should never be forced to participate, as resentment or anger could make matters worse.

If tension exists between groups of employees, Alvord says, HR then facilitates multiple meetings between the groups.

"Make sure you have ground rules set up so that it doesn't get out of control, you have a managed meeting and employees are respected and understand what you hope to accomplish," she explains. But if supervisors prefer to handle staff problems on their own, HR also coaches them on what to say and do. Alvord says they explore the root cause of the issue, then help feuding employees discover their ability to become part of the solution.

Engaging all sides of a conflict is key to resolving disputes. Employees must believe that they own the problem, instead of dismissing it, saying, "It's their problem, not mine." They'll be more invested in solving it if they understand how it affects them and that they have the ability to help solve it.

Regardless of the scenario, Alvord believes HR needs to be involved in employee conflicts, either directly or behind-the-scenes. "Allowing HR to be involved in employee conflict gives us the opportunity to assist managers in a performance improvement process, if necessary, and secondly, to evaluate what's going on in that work unit, whether training is necessary for the manager or employee," she says, adding that HR can also provide referrals to the employee assistance program if there's cause to believe something more serious is occurring. "If managers do this on their own, oftentimes, they can be [negatively] influenced by their own personal emotion that might be tied to that situation."

At other campuses, HR may yield to an ombudsman. Back in 2002, Marquette University (Wis.), established its first ombudsman program. Between three and five percent of its 2,600 employees use its services each year, says Kerry Egdorf, the university's ombudsman.

She believes such an office must be independent from HR to earn worker trust and successfully resolve disputes. She meets with employees either on or off campus, at any time of day, wherever and whenever they feel most comfortable. "The first thing I do is talk about the purpose of the office, [and] my role as being an impartial, confidential, and informal resource," she says. "HR will advocate what's best for the organization and can't promise confidentiality in all cases. I'm an advocate of fair process. I don't advocate for the university. I don't advocate for the employee and I'm not a decision-maker."

In personality disputes, an ombudsman should work hand-in-hand with HR.

She says her role is to help employees discover what their needs and interests are, what options exist and make decisions. The ombudsman office is a safe place where employees can simply vent, identify issues, and explore their options and feelings. Many tend to focus on their own feelings and the other person's behavior. While it's important to examine emotion, she says it's just as important for them to look at their own behavior.

One constant source of tension is e-mail. She says employees can't interpret the sender's nonverbal cues, tone of voice or body language. So they decide what the sender is thinking or feeling, then project their own feelings on to those

e-mails. She helps employees focus on how their own behavior and interpretations may have contributed to the problem.

While an ombudsman program can offer added value, it can never replace HR or an EAP. Instead, they should work hand-in-hand, offering options to employees that help resolve personality disputes.

"At Marquette, we look at it as another opportunity to fulfill our mission," she says. "It should be viewed as a valuable resource that can help the university enhance its culture of respect."

Sometimes, people just rub each other the wrong way and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Or is there?

If two employees in the same department constantly argue with each other or undermine each other's efforts, consider teaming them up on important projects, adds Lina Maria Cristancho, a San Antonio, Texas-based HR consultant.

"I'm a true believer of that," she says, assuming both employees are good performers. "This helps employees find common goals. Believe it or not, when employees know that they will have to work on two or more projects together, they tend to set differences apart in order to accomplish the tasks successfully."

Or maybe one employee is more mature than the other. In such cases, appeal to that employee. Consider this scenario: Jane and Sue work in the same department and are in competition with each other. Jane often gives Sue a hard time, prompting Sue to overreact. HR can ask Sue to "be the better person" by not taking Jane's comments personally. The next time Jane is rude or difficult, Sue can ask her if she's okay, if there's anything she can do to help, or if she did or said something that upset Jane.

More than likely, Jane will be surprised at Sue's reaction, says Cristancho, and apologize.

Still, there is no single approach to resolving all employee disputes. The key seems to be variety—offer training, an open-door policy and multiple sources that employees can turn to when conflicts erupt. So instead of hurling coffee cups at each other, they can now discuss their disagreements over coffee.

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR issues.