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July 2009: Managing the legal and human side of disputes

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Human Law Ezine - July 2009

Managing both the legal and human side of disputes 

Don’t focus on the ‘legal’ and forget the ‘people’

Recently I have been working with the HR team in a FTSE 250 firm. The management and HR team there have significant people management experience and have won prestigious awards for their people management results.

The management team, facing financial pressures, felt the only option was to make redundancies amongst the Customer Service team. As you can imagine that decision didn’t go down well with a set of people with very important customer facing roles.

But under the stress of a potential redundancy situation they got things wrong – becoming so keen to be legally complaint that they neglected the feelings and emotions of those involved and as a result created a conflict situation.

With some help the management team were able to pull the situation around.

The outcome (which in fact was one desired by the Customer Services team given the circumstances) was that no redundancies were made and that the staff were willing to accept a temporary pay cut.

The problem was that management had approached the redundancy programme in a clinical way. The management was so fearful on the legal side that their commitment to the staff appeared questionable. In reality they were probably just so absorbed in crossing all the legal i’s and dotting all the regulatory t’s that they forgot they were dealing with people. The team facing redundancy, in contrast, were more concerned about their long term future with the company (ie keeping their job), than the short term pain of a salary cut.

Although jobs were saved here the staff concerned are still disillusioned and management and HR teams need to work doubly hard to repair the damage.

This scenario presents lessons for any organisation going through a similar situation:

  • Think about the problem as a whole – yes consider the legal aspects but also look at the human aspects too.
  • Beware of tackling a problem that you are just too close to. In this case highly experienced professionals, you might say experts, in people management, got things so wrong because they became too absorbed in legal detail and failed to see the big picture. 
  • Consider external help sooner rather than later. It was good to be invited in to help but in this instance an earlier intervention on the strategic decisions could have prevented this situation.

Of course the experience of this team is not uncommon and with the constant threat of Employment Tribunal claims hanging over many employers’ heads it’s perhaps not surprising that they wanted to cover off the legal necessities. These tips for handling employee conflicts, disputes and redundancies serve as a useful reminder if you are facing similar difficulties.

Tips for handling employee conflicts, disputes and redundancies

Take it on the chin
Employers who take responsibility for the situation ie not blaming the economy or the market and certainly not blaming the employee(s) come out of conflict situations sooner and with better results. The employer needs to recognise it is up to them to provide the framework for the solution. 

Take a mediators approach
There are two sides to any argument but often it’s difficult to see the others point of view. This lack of empathy can lead to entrenched positions, heightened tempers and rash decisions.

Try to take a neutral stance - anyone can act like a mediator when dealing with a potential conflict. Following our 6-point plan for successful mediations will help.

There are some basic approaches to take and some skills you will need but if you seek to identify what is genuinely fuelling the dispute this is a good starting point. Crucially you should try to gather evidence from all sides prior to making a decision.

If you need an independent mediator you might consider looking at retired directors if the dispute warrants it. Or you may prefer the true independence of an external mediator to come in and help the parties reach an understanding.

Feel the fear and do it anyway
Time and time again I come across employers who are so scared of getting sued that they just go down the process route. They fear opening up and being direct and open with their staff. They delegate to lawyers or internal HR staff and they do so in part to avoid conflict. The problem is that their fear leads to the problem becoming worse as those they delegate to don’t always have access to all the facts or may choose a more aggressive stance than is appropriate. Becoming more knowledgeable about your legal rights and responsibilities and improving your own people management skills can help overcome this fear barrier.

Be brave. Be willing to be direct and open, honest and true to yourself. Dealing with law can be demanding but don’t use this as an excuse to avoid looking at the causes of the problem.

Keep it professional
Every professional manager and business owner likes to think they are in control of their emotions but the nature of work can be stressful and more so in a difficult trading environment. The fact is that we are human beings and we are all bound to react to situations differently and stress can cause us to react out of character or with less thought and consideration than normal.

Leave personalities aside and focus on the issues. Take your own emotions out of the problem. Again, a mediator can help work through this

Handling employee conflicts and redundancies can be difficult and is rarely without some fall-out. But instead of seeing just the negative consequences and resenting the whole process some forward looking organisations take the opportunity to consider changes in the organisation. To things like structure, management processes and even business strategy and goals. In other words the employment dispute may be a chance to make larger changes in the firm which can have a real positive financial difference. By being humble enough to admit that sometimes as management we cannot always get it right and actively listening to the concerns of those around us we can discover ways to improve.

For advice on handling employee conflict and redundancy situations contact Justin Patten at Human Law Mediation.

Further reading:

6-point plan for successful mediations

Using mediation in redundancy situations

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