Assessing Workplace Conflict Resolution Options

By Blackard, Kirk | Dispute Resolution Journal, February-April 2001 | Go to article overview

Assessing Workplace Conflict Resolution Options


Blackard, Kirk, Dispute Resolution Journal


Conflict in the workplace is normal and healthy. A workplace devoid of tensions is ultimateky dull and stagnant, unlikely to foster creativity and growth. However, management's inability to resolve disputes effectively or prevent serious conflicts can be counterproductive. In this article, Kirk Blackard outlines various employment ADR options and their potential benefits its also presents a practical framework for assessing a company's capacity and ened for a dispute resolution system. The key to choosing a suitable system, he says is the ability to balance potential costs against potential benefits.

Some counterproductive conflict occurs in all organizations. Thoughtful managers must consider how much time, effort, and money they are investing in such conflict, and whether they are dealing with it as well as they can. If the organization does not already have a formal conflict resolution system, management should consider whether use of one would improve organization effectiveness and add economic value.

This article discusses factors management should consider when looking at the needs of its organization and available conflict resolution options to determine if a better approach is appropriate. It briefly reviews various options, outlines their potential benefits, and presents an approach for management to use in deciding whether it should adopt alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes.

Conflict Resolution Options

One option is for management to be essentially passive and allow the disputants (in conflict among employees) or the other party (in conflict between employees and management) to control the dispute resolution process. When this happens, a management with a firm position as to the substance of a dispute may nevertheless allow the employee or employees involved to determine the process through which it is resolved. For example, management might aggressively defend a decision or policy at the heart of a controversy, but nevertheless allow employee complainants to decide when to surface the dispute, whether to appeal a decision internally or externally, or whether to litigate. In such cases, management implicitly relegates decisions as to how conflicts will be resolved to the employees involved.

While delegating decisions to employees is often a positive management practice, allowing employee disputants to control the process for resolving conflicts they have raised has many pitfalls, particularly where their dispute is with management. Doing so allows decisions concerning the resolution process to be controlled by individuals who have interests that are different than those of the organization or other individuals in it, and who may not have the appropriate information, expertise, or resources to pursue creative or non-traditional approaches. Employees are likely to use processes that lead to substantive decisions based on who is "right" from a legal or policy viewpoint, or who has the power to coerce the other party to give in. Absent early concessions by one party or the other, litigation is the likely result.

Making decisions on the basis of rights and power may, on the surface, seem to favor management, which typically has more information, is in a better position to understand legal and policy issues, and has more power than employees. However, settlements that are decided by force or by a third party through litigation are frequently costly, rarely address the real interests of either party, and seldom truly resolve the underlying problems in a way that prevents recurrence or accomplishes a purpose beyond resolving the immediate dispute.

A wiser option is for management to have a strategy for managing conflict; a plan that is an alternative to employee-controlled processes that so often lead to costly litigation and further conflict. ADR, an umbrella term that covers a wide range of non-litigious options, can be part of such a strategy. A management concerned about counterproductive conflict should consider its particular circumstances and use one or more practices from a wide range of ADR options. …

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