The relationship between employers and employees has long been the subject of widespread study and debate within the business world. This employment relationship can be defined as a complex system in which social, economic and political factors combine with an employee who exchanges mental and manual labour for rewards allocated by the employer (Encarta Encyclopaedia Deluxe. 2004). Industrial relations and human resource management advocates have traditionally held different views on the subject of organisational conflict. Many authors have argued that organisational conflict is inevitable in most work settings and that the employment relationship is essentially a trade-off ground (Alexander and Lewer, 1998; Deery, Plowman, Walsh and Brown 2001; Edwards, 1986). Supporting this argument, this essay will argue that conflict is both inevitable in the employment relationship and also potentially productive.
When employers and employees come together in the workplace, sooner or later there is invariably some conflict that will arise. Once conflict has arisen, there is many different ways in which employees will show their discontent for their working conditions. Some forms will be shown in overt and obvious ways, the most blatant and publicised of these being strikes (Alexander and Lewer, 1998).
Strikes involve a removal of labour by employees from the whole or, sometimes, a part of an organisation. The purpose of the strike is to enforce demands relating to employment conditions on the employer or of protesting unfair labour practices (Hyman, 1984). During the twelve months ended May 2003, there were 241,900 working days lost due to industrial disputes (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2003). Other forms of overt conflict include stop-work meetings, work bans and boycotts.
The traditional view of industrial relations was that a lack of strikes meant that all was well and conflict was being kept to a minimum. But in recent years widespread study has found that there are many other forms of conflict that are carried out in a much more covert manner (Alexander and Lewer, 1998; Deery et al. 2001). These can include absenteeism, high employee turnover, accidents, slow downs, sabotage, theft, low morale, slackness and inefficiency. This type of response to conflict tends to be undertaken by disgruntled individuals rather than groups due to its covert nature (Edwards, 1986). Alexander and Lewer (1998) found that the losses caused by covert expressions of conflict far outweigh the overt. They reported that in 1997, absenteeism alone cost Australian business over $15 billion, or 6.75% of each company’s payroll. Both these forms of dealing with conflict relate back to the underlying principle that employers and employees have different objectives, thus ensuring conflict is inevitable.
There are five key actors in the employment relationship: Employees, Employers, Trade Unions, Employee Associations and The role of the State. Each of these actors interact to and exchange conflict and resolutions.
Trade unions are responsible for enterprise-level bargaining on behalf of the employees, though recently there has been more reliance on the arbitration system. By giving workers a united voice, a union can often negotiate higher wages, shorter hours, and better fringe benefits (such as insurance and pension plans) than individual workers can negotiate on their own (Davis & Lansbury, 1993). The last 30 years have seen a steep decline in the union density and power than unions hold. In 1976, 51% of all employees were in trade unions, by august 2002 this had fallen to 23.1% (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2003).
Multi-unionism at the workplace has tended to fragment authority and obstruct union-management relationships, in cases causing workplace uncertainty and conflict from employees over who is representing them (Deery et al. 2001). Employer associations represent employers and help defend against the often well organised assault from trade unions. The role of the state is to oversee the employment relationship and ensure that employers, and employees and their representatives are able to cooperate in a manner that provides high inventory turnover, in an unbiased, safe workplace (Bamber & Davis, 2000).
Employers, unions and governments have mainly divergent concerns about the future directions and impacts of workplace conflict and the effect it has on their objectives. Employers are concerned about economic performance and viability in the face of an increasingly competitive local marketplace. Staff or wages cuts which may be necessary to stay economically viable will almost certainly cause conflict with employees. Unions are concerned that poor performance in the business economy will cause higher unemployment and put workers current terms of employment at jeopardy, a potential cause of great conflict. Unions also fear that continuing measures by the state to reduce their powers will cause further falls in membership levels, mean reduced influence onto employers.
Identifying the underlying causes of this widespread conflict is important as it allows management to determine what resolution approach to take. The causes of this conflict will generally fall into two broad categories, collective and individual reasons (Deery et al. 1998).
Collective causes of conflict generally are to deal with an employee’s disagreement with the structural make up of their work environment. Examples of this are poor employee reward systems, limited work resources, poorly constructed policies and work requirements conflict. Edwards (1979) believes that the underlying reason in this category is because there is a strong conflict of interest between employers and employees. What is good for one party is frequently costly for the other. An example of this is management’s objective of maximising the level of effort that employees apply to their work while also attempting to minimise wage expenditure (Deery et al. 1998). Studies also suggest that if workers feel they are being underpaid and cannot take collective action, they may very well adjust their work effort down to match the wage (Deery et al. 1998; Edwards, 1979). These points strengthen the aim of this essay because the wage-effort trade off will continue to exist further causing conflict amongst the employment relationship.
The general approach to negotiation response to collective causes of conflict is through a process called collective bargaining. There are three main levels of collective bargaining in the Australian system: National level bargaining, industry level bargaining and workplace level bargaining (Macklin, Goodwin & Docherty. 1993). At the national level of bargaining, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) plays an arbitration role in industrial relations matters which cannot be resolved at lower levels.
Industry level bargaining occurs within a particular industry, generally between trade unions and employer associations, with both these parties representing their members. This level of bargaining can determine industry-wide agreements on terms of employment. In recent years workplace and individual bargain has become a more preferred method of conflict negotiation (Alexander & Lewer. 1998). This level allows individual employers and employees to bargain without the need for representatives. These different approaches to collective conflict negotiation allow employees and employers to come to some agreement in a fair and formal manner.
Individual causes of conflict can be provoked by a large combination of issues. Biases and prejudices, inaccurate perception, personality differences, cultural differences, differing ethical beliefs, poor communication and lack of skill in conflict resolutions are all pieces that can make up a larger picture of organisational conflict. Robbins, Bergman, Stagg and Coulter (2003), found that there are 5 main techniques to reducing individual conflicts: forcing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding and accommodating. Which approach to use depends on the manger’s desire to be more or less cooperative and more or less assertive (Robbins et al. 2003).
Not all conflicting situations are bad. Several authors have argued that, when the level of conflict is low or nil, internal work characteristics tend to be apathetic, stagnant, unresponsive to change and lacking in new ideas (Robbins et al. 2003, Lewicki & Litterer 1985). By directing conflict from a position of disagreement to an exchange of ideas, an environment of cooperation and trust is possible which can lead to mutually beneficial outcomes (DeChurch Marks, 2001; Van Slyke, 1997).
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This paper intends to look at the causes of conflict in the workplace and the effects that it can have on the employers, employees, and the organization as a whole. This is not a problem that started recently, this has been going on for years. Conflict in the workplace can be resolved when addressed in a timely manner and ensuring that the correct tools are used in the process. The work environment has the normal stressors, so therefore creating an environment that is free from undue stress can be greatly rewarding. Morale and productivity can reach high levels when a pleasant work environment is created.
Keywords: conflict resolution, workplace conflict
Workplace Conflict Resolution
Conflict: ‘to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance or in opposition; clash.’ How would it be to live this life free from conflict? We as humans would like to believe that conflicts never occur or if and when they do the resolution will be a favorable outcome for all concerned (Dictionary.com, n.d.).
Causes of Workplace Conflict
According to Crampton (2011) ‘workplace conflict is inevitable.’ It does not matter what type of business we are in there is sure to be some kind of workplace conflict. If we know what those triggers are we will be better able to deal with and try to settle the conflicts. There are everyday circumstances that can definitely lead to workplace conflict and this is not something anyone can gage or know when to expect. Just the circumstances and situations of everyday life will cause undesirable circumstances.
Individuals working together or living together for that matter will at some point will have person issues. According to Crampton (2011) whether these differences stem from ‘hurts, slights, rivalry or other conflict’ this can affect the goals and expectations of the organization. There will be some issues that we cannot leave at home and deal with when we return. When this happens it can and will cause a conflict in the workplace because some individuals will not or they are scared to discuss their personal problems with their boss or co-workers. This can cause a great misunderstanding in the workplace because everyone will be wondering what is going on.
This does not happen only in business, but this happens in any area of life. When individuals fail to communicate or do not know how to communicate this can ruin any relationship. Verbal and non-verbal communication is very important for one’s very existence and survival, so therefore we must be able to express not only our feelings, but workplace expectations.
Today most people communicate using electronics, so therefore it is very hard to really get to know how they are really feeling or thinking for that matter. In the workplace people used to walk around to get answers to situations, but now everything is e-mailed. I prefer the old-fashioned way which was management by walking around and talking to the staff face to face. This would be a way to really build a rapport.
We all have been created differently with our own minds, thoughts, and attitudes. We are now in an age where we are more aware of the different generations we interact with on a daily basis. From the silent generation to what I would call the microwave generation that really believe in texting and only using shortcuts. We are all working together and there can be some serious communication gaps which can lead to personality conflicts. Terms that are used by the more seasoned generation can be offensive to the younger generation and this can cause a conflict to occur.
This seems to be behind every ailment or confusion that may be happening in the workplace. What if the secretary decides that he or she does not want to schedule an appointment and the administrative assistant decides she does not want to cover for the secretary in her absence, this could become a stressful environment. What happens when have someone in human resources delays sending an offer letter because he or she does not want to listen to the supervisor?
Types of Conflicts
Employee versus Employee
Most of the time when this happens, the employees have miscommunicated the objective of completing a project and have his or own method of doing something. This is where different levels of experience is a negative versus a positive. The employees are not allowing their experiences to play a role in having a successful outcome. When this happens, the best thing to do is to ‘nip it in the bud’ or else the situation will be uncontrollable. There must be a meeting to discuss the genesis of the misunderstanding.
We all have to vent at some point or we will blow up or have a very negative attitude. This is something I learned and I am still learning, the person that we vent to can turn what is said into the nastiest situation and this can create a hostile work environment. It does take two to have a conversation, but the sad part is that we never know whether or not the other person has a hidden agenda and will take it to the next level.
Employee versus Manager
How this is handled could predict whether or not the person may or may not have a job in the end. This is very difficult if not the most difficult situation to be handled. Some managers may not know they are too rough or may be coming off as really misunderstood. I had to deal with this situation years ago and this person was not just being difficult and not know it, he was actually harassing me and knew what he was doing. There was no way to reach him, so the situation was resolved quietly, he was the type of person who deserved to work alone. As stated by D. Crampton, ‘a simple meeting to ‘clear the air’ may be all that’s needed to resolve the problem’ (2011).
Solutions to the Conflict
How conflicts originate or get started are different so therefore, they must be handled or settled using various approaches that suit the situation. Some of the tips used: ‘ approach must be clear, do not indulge in the conflict, personal attitude should not be the basis, others point of view must be acknowledged, use a mediator if necessary, and the superiors do not have to be involved’ (Farrell, 2014).
We all would love to have a conflict end where both sides will come out winning, but we know that that is not always the case. Hitt, Miller, & Colella (2011) wrote the following are outcomes to conflict:
- Lose-Lose: Neither party gets what they initially desired
- Win-Lose or Lose Win: One of the party’s concerns are satisfied
- Compromise: Both parties give in to some degree on an issue or set of issues
- Win-Win: Both parties get what they want. (pp. 448-450)
This last outcome is what we would like for all conflicts, but this will not always be the case or solution.
Respect in the workplace should be at the very top of everyone’s list from the top manager on down. This would be going back to basics of treating people how we want to be treated. Below is a list of what respect is (The Resolution Centre, 2009).
1. Always treat people with courtesy, politeness, kindness and ultimately how you would like to be treated
2. Listen to what others have to say before expressing your viewpoint
3. Never butt in or talk over another person
4. Encourage others to express their opinions and ideas
5. Improve your work by using others ideas and credit them for their ideas
6. Never put people down, disparage them, call them names or insult them
7. Do not belittle, criticize little things, demean or patronize others. A series of small comments over time can amount to bullying
8. If you would prefer not to do a task, chances are neither would your co-worker. Share the load
9. Regardless of race, religion, gender, age or other orientation always treat people equally
10. Ensure that your workplace maintains an equal opportunity policy and that you are familiar with it
11. Ensure that praise, recognition and appreciation is abundant in your workplace
This is so easy to understand because we are trying everyday day to manage our own emotions, which we do not realize the other person may be feeling or going through something. There are ten simple strategies help reduce negative emotions: ‘delay, expectation management, appreciation, then correction, same side, relief, leverage positions, acknowledgement, your responsibility in the problem, your responsibility in the solution and sincere apology.’ Each one of these strategies must be met with sincerity or they will not work. (Polsky, 2011).
Managing the Conflict
‘Don’t fear conflict; embrace it ‘ it’s your job’ (Myatt, 2012). What a concept. We all feel that conflict is the last thing that we would like to deal with. We spend more time at work than we do at home with our families, so therefore we would like to be in a peaceful environment. It is so true that if the problem is not addressed it will not get resolved, it will only escalate.
Mike Myatt (2012) stated in his article ‘leadership and conflict go hand-in-hand.’ This is such a true statement, but no one wants to have to deal with conflict. Leaders and managers must know how to handle conflict in the workplace. This is often swept under the rug hoping that the problem will go away and it does not, things just get worse.
Do not be afraid. It is the believed that the person causing the conflict is a trouble maker verses someone who is bringing something positive to the table. We all have various opinions and ideas, so therefore there will always be some sort of conflict which must be addresses. Some organizations will just move the individuals or as it is said the problem around to make things better.
Communicate. What we all somehow fail to do effectively. One example is the negative attitude which may happen over and over again and workers will eventually strike out at each other (Smith, n/d). When this happens the problem must be addressed and there will be times when the individual may be the cause of the problem, but do not jump to this particular conclusion prior to communicating effectively.
Can be Positive. It is hard to imagine that such a behavior as conflict can be used as a positive. How can something that seems so dark be healthy and be used in such a positive way? Humans in and out of the work center will express themselves at some point in time, and this is not something easily handled. Some people would rather avoid the conflict than address it. Kevan Hall wrote an article in 2013 that contained four tips that can be used to turn conflicts into something positive. He stated ‘that ownership of the problem or paying the price are the choices that one has.’ The tips are as follows: ‘recognize and flag the problem, remain emotionally neutral, create shared purpose, and learn from it’ (2013).
As long as we humans continue to exist, move, work and live among each other, conflict will be a part of this life. We have to learn to use the resources available to us to the best our being to try to resolve the conflicts. There will be times when the outcome will not be what we want it to be or hope for, but we must press on and try to learn from those experiences to create an environment that will be free from conflict.
The strategic implications of organizational behavior for resolving workplace conflict would be to try to create an environment that would be free of conflict or when it occurs try to ensure that it will be resolved immediately. Training is needed so that individuals will be able to handle conflict as soon as it occurs. The most valuable lesson that anyone will ever learn will be how to communicate with each other. Learning how to handle personal situations and teaching on how to respect each other versus taking each other for granted will certainly go a long way. The opportunities would be to have a great company and a team of workers that can get along with each other in a stress free environment. The challenges would be to actually get everyone to understand that they all have differences that can work as a positive but this does not always happen.
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