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Professor Richard Saundry calls for more mediation and less legal intervention in solving workplace problems

The first wave of the Covid-19 emergency forced the NHS to put many formal HR processes on hold, including those for conflict and grievances.

But despite the enormous pressures it was facing, research that I carried out during the summer of 2020 after the first wave of the pandemic for workplace relationships specialist CMP, the Healthcare People Management Association and Allocate – found improved employment relations and more effective partnership working with trade unions.

In addition, there was also some evidence of more creative and less formal approaches to resolving workplace problems, with staff at all levels working together to develop more collaborative approaches to difficult situations. 

At the same time, there was also evidence of a tendency for issues to get bogged down in lengthy and complex formal procedures. This is not unique to the NHS, my work has consistently shown that despite enthusiasm for early and less formal resolution, in reality more rigid approaches still dominate.

There are examples of employers – in the NHS and elsewhere – who are developing new and innovative approaches to conflict management – integrating different mechanisms to build the capacity to prevent, contain and resolve conflict

One of the fundamental reasons for this is that procedure is often seen as a safety blanket by overworked and undertrained managers, who are often not trusted by HR to get the basics right.  

So, how do we overcome this? In a recent workshop organised by the PrOPEL Hub (a consortium of UK universities) I argued that we needed to review and rethink our approach to workplace procedures. In addition, I suggest that HR practitioners need to become experts in conflict resolution rather than employment law.

There was wide agreement among workshop participants that conventional approaches are failing people and organisations. There was also vocal support for more progressive approaches focusing on early resolution and repair and restoration of the employment relationship. 

There are examples of employers – in the NHS and elsewhere – who are developing new and innovative approaches to conflict management – integrating different mechanisms to build the capacity to prevent, contain and resolve conflict.

However, these are still the exception rather than the rule and the reality is that most organisations are not ready to move away from traditional processes and procedures. To do this you need managers who have skills and space to have quality conversations with their staff and the confidence to intervene early before conflict escalates.

In practice that means a shift from top to bottom: moving away from an over-emphasis on visionary ‘leaders’ who sit on top of the mountain towards those who have an active role in improving jobs and staff experience of the workplace.

HR professionals also have a key strategic role to play as coaches and mentors, but they too need to develop their skill-sets with a focus on mediation and conflict resolution skills.

Now is the time for conflict management to be re-invented as we try to ‘build back better’ in the wake of Covid-19. My research in the NHS following the first wave also suggested that the pandemic had shone a new light on the importance of people in organisational life.

For organisations to be successful and sustainable post-pandemic, well-being and working experience must be placed at the heart of their strategy and vision. Leaders simply cannot pretend that conflict doesn’t exist. Instead, they need to redirect their focus towards building positive employment relations and resolving and repairing relationships when they start to break down.

Here’s five key steps that organisations can take to build a culture of early and informal conflict resolution:

  • Emphasise core interpersonal skills in recruitment, development and reward 
  • Prioritise informal resolution processes – reframe the role of procedure 
  • Record, measure and monetise informal resolution (in other words, recognise the ROI compared with formal procedures)
  • Actively support and invest in structures of representation 
  • Develop high-level conflict resolution competence within the HR function.


About the author

Richard Saundry is Professor of HRM and Employment Relations at the University of Sheffield and author of The Impact of Covid-19 on Employment Relations in the NHS


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