Conflict Resolution Policies Help Employers Remain Union Free

by Marylou V. Fabbo

No workplace is free of conflict and employee disagreement.  Disputes arise in all workplaces and can be related to just about every imaginable issue, including dissatisfaction with break times, seemingly unjust disciplinary actions, lunches stolen from the lunch room refrigerator, and co-worker hygiene issues.  Because of the frequency with which these sorts of issues arise, employers should have procedures in place to address employee concerns.  Employees who feel that their issues are not heard or resolved become dissatisfied with their work environments and their employers. Perception of employer unfairness is the primary reason employees organize, as many employees believe that a union will protect them from unilateral management whims.  Having a conflict resolution process in place that is well-communicated to employees and consistently applied lets employees know that their issues will be addressed and taken seriously, and it makes them less likely to seek redress through unionization efforts.

Developing a Means of Addressing Employee Issues

Conflict resolution, also known as dispute resolution, can take many forms.  Conflict resolution can be an informal meeting between a supervisor and an employee to resolve a work-related issue or the use of an “Open Door” policy.   However, not all dissatisfaction is so easily resolved.  If an initial meeting with a supervisor does not resolve an issue, the employee needs to know what to do next.  If an organization has a policy in place for resolving conflicts quickly and at early stages, employees tend to view their employers as fair.

The type of dispute resolution process an employer puts in place will depend on the size of the organization, the makeup of its workforce, its culture, and the resources available to address employee issues.  Some employers may institute detailed procedures involving many people with several levels of appeal, while others may not be able to provide their employees with as many opportunities for review of a determination.  Regardless of the process chosen, an employer should draft a conflict resolution policy that will provide employees with a fair opportunity to have their concerns addressed and one which the company will be able to adhere to.

Generally, there are three steps in a good conflict resolution procedure.  The initial step is discussion with the employee’s supervisor, unless the problem is the employee’s supervisor, in which case an alternate starting contact, such as the next-level supervisor, should be identified.  Second, if the initial discussion does not resolve the problem to the employee’s satisfaction, an employee should be directed to submit a complaint to the next-level supervisor, department head, or Human Resources.   A written complaint is recommended and should include a summary of the issue, the date the issue occurred, the first-level reviewer’s response, and the desired outcome.  Often organizations prepare standard forms for employees to complete to insure that all relevant information is provided.    If the response remains unsatisfactory to the employee, the third step in the resolution procedure should include a final appeal to a specific group of people or the highest-level officer within the company or a peer review panel.

The resolution procedure should include a realistic time frame by which the employer will respond to complaints at each level of the process, keeping in mind that the employer may need to gather additional information and/or conduct witness interviews before it can provide a response.  The procedure should also include a deadline for employees to appeal to each subsequent step in the process (such as 5 working days after the employer’s response to the prior-level complaint).

Consider a Dispute Resolution Committee

A dispute resolution committee that is comprised of management and other employees (also known as a peer review panel) is a good option for employers to use as the final level of appeal.  The committee could also have responsibility for receiving employee concerns and problems or act as a mediating body.  Employers who are considering using dispute resolution committees for such purposes should have written rules and guidelines that define the types of complaints it will consider, its authority, and set forth how members for the committee will be chosen.

Whatever the mechanism, an internal dispute resolution processes can provide the parties directly involved with greater participation in reaching a solution in a less formal environment than a courtroom and without union intervention.

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