Conflict is the basis of drama. It is necessary for good theater, but absolutely unnecessary for a conducive work environment. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that conflict will arise in the workplace. Even under the best conditions with reasonable people, the circumstances exist that lend themselves to be potential minefields. It is as simple as there are rules. And with rules there are people required to follow the rules and people empowered to enforce them. It does not matter if the rules are company policies, past practices, or negotiated procedures. The fact is they are constraints on behavior and create expectations that have to be met. But, there are many things management can do to do create a peaceful workplace and avoid grievances that take time and focus from the purpose of the actual mission.
The first job of management is to assure that the rules are:
All employees and managers have to understand the rules and the disciplinary action that will be taken if the rules are breached. There has to be a clear understanding of managerial expectations. There should be nothing vague or ambiguous about these expectations. The rules should be in writing and made known to each employee. A procedure that has served well is to distribute the work rules with a cover sheet that the employee signs and dates acknowledging receipt of the work rules. This sheet then goes into the employee’s file. This resolves the excuse of “I didn’t know the rules.”
Once the rules have been put in writing and receipt acknowledged, the rules need to be administered in an equitable and consistent manner. Failure to do this is the source of most legitimate employee grievances. As it is important for each supervisor to be consistent in his or her own behavior, it does not take long for the union or an employee group to discover inconsistency within the management ranks. This means training and consistent behavior for managers is a must. The first line supervisor is the most important individual in the equation. This is the person that has the most interaction with the employees and the face most associated with authority. Giving vague or unclear direction, showing favoritism, failure to address minor irritants and complaints, not respecting the employee as an individual and failure to listen to the employee’s point of view all add up to grievances. These grievances, whether informal (verbal) or formal (in
writing) take up time, create ill will, and hurt productivity.
The aforementioned problems that can be addressed and corrected are some of the reasons grievances are filed. But grievances are also filed for a myriad of reasons sometimes frivolous and often times as an automatic reaction to disciplinary action being taken against the employee. It should be understood by all that disciplinary action is taken for corrective not punitive purposes. That is why it is absolutely necessary to administer discipline only after all the facts have been gathered and done so without malice. It is good business to investigate the circumstances, ask the necessary questions, listen to the employees’ point of view and never get into a shouting match or allow the situation to get out of control.
Remember not to allow the person or personality to dictate the level of disciplinary action to be taken. The action taken has to fit the offense and be administered in accordance with the work rules, policies and past practices. A problem that is all too common is the supervisor’s “feelings” about the particular employee and allowing that to determine the consequences.
It is essential that employee issues be dealt with as soon as they become apparent. In many situations an employee’s misbehavior is allowed to go on for months or even years and then one day the supervisor “has had it” and decides to fix the problem once and for all and over reacts to the situation. Often times, behavior has been addressed informally and sometimes regularly for long periods of time. Unfortunately, it has never been documented nor dealt with in the proper manner. This is why documentation is so important to the entire process. Every time an employee is given any type of corrective action, no matter how insignificant, it should be noted. An important justification of taking formal disciplinary action is being able to substantiate previous attempts to correct the problem using less serious methods. Documentation is key! It only has to be a note to file, recording the issue, date, and people present. This information has prevented many grievances and won many arbitration cases. Having a paper trail demonstrates that the supervisor is thoughtful, organized, has attempted to correct the problem previously and is not having a bad day or have a personality problem with the employee, which is often a defense against any type of disciplinary action.
Employees are often promoted into management because of their technical skills. While being given authority over other people, they are regularly given minimal training in dealing with people problems and labor relations issues. They are given the authority to implement procedures and policies without being properly trained and given the guidance to develop any technique. Without investing the time and effort in training, you have produced a supervisor who while knowledgeable about the work does not have the tools to deal with the problems sure to arise.
These few points about work rule implementation, fairness, documentation and training can dramatically reduce the number of grievances, resolve many of the grievances filled and win some of the cases referred to arbitration. Along with oversight by higher-level managers much time can be saved and employee morale boasted by knowing that any type of action to be taken will be done so in accordance with the work rules and for corrective purposes.
Submitted by Thomas F. Dinardo, Director for Support Services, Temple University