Extinguishing the workplace conflict ‘fire’

Summer in Australia means bushfire season and the accompanying public service announcements encouraging people to develop action plans so they know what to do if a fire threatens their property.

In a similar spirit of being prepared, I’m encouraging all managers to think seriously about the ways a fire can damage their business. Not a literal fire because you’ve probably got that covered. You have fire blankets and fire extinguishers and wardens and drills.

No, I’m talking about the metaphorical fire that blazes when you have workplace conflict.

It might seem hard to imagine that now when many staff are still on leave and the ones who are back on deck are calm and relaxed.

But let’s fast forward a few months. Work is hectic, staff are carrying the extra load for the ones who are away sick and resources seem scarcer than ever. This is when ancient grievances, personal differences, professional jealousy, feeling overworked and underappreciated, anger at being asked to do more with less, to name but a few, become the dry tinder that quickly sparks into a flame.

This fire can be just as destructive as a literal fire but it’s easy to ignore (‘It’s just a spat’, ‘I’m too busy for this’ ‘They’ll get over it’). And so it grows, pulling more staff into the conflagration as they take sides, the workplace becomes divided, productivity plummets and the bottom-line suffers. Then someone alleges bullying so you bring in an investigator. You need to hose this thing down and the investigator will ‘put out the fire’.

Except they won’t. An investigator is a detective, not a firefighter, and their report, which will take some time to compile, WILL DO NOTHING to put out the fire unless they find sufficient evidence that someone should be sacked, and this is rare.

The common finding is that no bullying occurred, in which case both parties are unhappy: the complainant because the respondent wasn’t punished and the respondent because they were accused of bullying in the first place. And if a minor breach is substantiated, the complainant is still unhappy because the respondent was not punished ‘enough’ while the respondent is furious that they were punished at all. In either case, the fire is still raging and profits keep going up in flames.

By now, both parties are so angry and entrenched that they are more interested in punishment than resolution so a mediator (the real firefighter) may not even be called in.

Part of the problem here is that the manger didn’t have a ‘bushfire plan’ in place so they tended to react to the situation, made poor decisions and everyone got burnt.

What were the poor decisions?

  • There was no conflict resolution plan in the organisation. All staff should have the tools to deal with workplace conflict (fire blankets and extinguishers) know exactly what process to follow (fire drills), and who to go to for assistance (fire wardens).
  • The conflict was allowed to combust to allegations of bullying. This fire could have been put out by manager skilled in conflict resolution who listened to concerns and facilitated a discussion between parties.
  • Every allegation of bullying does not have to be investigated. Complainants could be advised of the likely outcomes of an investigation, and the time it could take, so they can make an informed decision. Complainants usually want their concerns to be addressed quickly and when told a qualified mediator (firefighter) can assist them to resolve their differences within a week, they will usually opt for mediation over investigation.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that bullying complaints should never be investigated; rather, that investigations should be seen as a tool to be used in specific instances (notably rights-based complaints) rather than as knee-jerk responses to allegations.

I’m advocating for organisations to develop a strategic, thoughtful and nuanced response to workplace conflict (a plan) and communicate this to staff. I want all staff, especially managers, to be responsible for resolving workplace conflict and to have the training to do this. I also want managers to be able to recognise when they should hand over a dispute to another professional, and to be able to make an educated decision as to who that professional should be.

For something that has such a damaging effect on workers’ health and business profits[1], I think that’s the least we can do.


Helen Collins works in a variety of dispute resolution modes including mediation, coaching and training, and conducts investigations. She assists businesses to increase productivity by managing workplace conflict.

Contact her at profitableresolutions@netpsace.net.au or visit her website at www. profitableresolutions.com


[1] The Know Bull Workplace Bullying Survey has discovered that the time lost to strife between workers is estimated to cost Australian workplaces, on average, between $6 billion and $36 billion every year in downtime: http://www.news.com.au/finance/work/how-to-deal-with-conflict-in-the-workplace/story-e6frfm9r-1226306319268

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