Research urges companies to be proactive in tackling workplace conflict

The study, funded by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), argues that the capacity of organisations to respond to workplace conflict has been severely eroded, with line managers often lacking the confidence and skill to deal with these issues. 

It adds that widespread change is needed to tackle the problem, in order to enhance the well-being of managers and staff whose performance could be adversely affected. 

Conflict is a significant feature of organisational life, with the CIPD estimating employers devote an average of 18 days in management and HR time to each disciplinary case, and 14.4 days to managing an employee grievance. Moreover, employees in the UK spend an average of 1.8 hours per week dealing with conflict equating to an annual ‘loss’ of 370 million working days. 

Dr Richard Saundry

While conflict often used to be dealt with by HR departments, increasingly responsibility has been shifted onto front-line managers and unfortunately, this part of their job is often not recognised.

Dr Richard Saundry, Associate Professor in HR and Leadership Studies at the Plymouth Graduate School of Management, led the four-year study.

Dr Richard Saundry's profile

Dr Richard Saundry

Dr Richard Saundry, Associate Professor in HR and Leadership Studies at the Plymouth Graduate School of Management, led the four-year study. 

He said: “While conflict often used to be dealt with by HR departments, increasingly responsibility has been shifted onto front-line managers and unfortunately, this part of their job is often not recognised. Organisations need to focus on rebuilding the relationships in workplaces which provide channels through which conflict can be minimised and resolved, and crucially to recognise that doing so is central to the well-being and performance of their employees.” 

For this research, Dr Saundry and Dr Gemma Wibberley, from iROWE at the University of Central Lancashire, conducted detailed case studies of five UK organisations and the findings represent a major contribution to understanding the challenges facing organisations in managing difficult issues in the workplace. 

Their full report – ‘Workplace Dispute Resolution and the Management of Individual Conflict: a thematic analysis of five case studies’ – makes a number of recommendations through which organisations can take steps to remedy these issues. These include: 

  • making the management of conflict a strategic issue;
  • providing line managers with the skills needed to address and manage difficult issues, not just in managing conflict but also in more generic ‘handling difficult conversations’;
  • providing for effective structures of employee representation.
In a speech to a fringe meeting at the Wales TUC today, the Chair of Acas Sir Brendan Barber will comment on the research. 

He said: “We would all like to see conflict resolved in the workplace rather than the court room. But even when they are bubbling beneath the surface, problems at work can be very demanding to manage effectively. Many line managers do not feel equipped for the challenge and we are in danger of expecting too much of them.” 


Full Acas report