Why does conflict happen?

There are convincing reasons to promote the wider use of facilitative mediation in individual employment disputes. The advantage of using an informal approach means there is greater flexibility in how it is used to suit specific circumstances, and the confidentiality of the process can offer a breathing space that allows more open and honest discussion.

Conflict is an inherent part of the employment relationship. Modern organizations are dynamic and complex, made up of people with increasingly diverse backgrounds, opinions, values and expectations about work. For their part, organizations are under ever-increasing pressure to be productive or deliver quality services to clients. The continuous change experienced by many organizations can also lead to conflict.

The formalization of conflict

When problems emerge, a first response from staff is often to lodge a grievance. Managers feel the need to know who has done what to whom and what needs to be done to get things back on track. Formal procedures have an important role to play in the workplace. But many disputes can potentially be settled without the need to pursue a formal grievance procedure. Once formal procedures have been triggered, the tendency is for differences to become more adversarial. Once the conflict has escalated and positions have become entrenched, it is very difficult to alter people’s perceptions and have an open discussion. The likelihood of a mutually acceptable outcome then becomes more remote.

Organizational costs

The price organizations can pay for conflict goes beyond the costs of an employment tribunal claim. There are also the internal resources spent on discipline and grievance cases to take into account. Research has indicated that that managing each grievance case takes an average of seven days or more of management and HR time.

The cost of conflict includes direct and indirect costs. Some, such as sickness, absence due to stress and staff turnover, are quantifiable and have an immediate adverse impact on the organization. Other costs, such as loss of team morale and absenteeism, where employees are at work but not working to their full potential because of stress levels, are harder to pin down but the effects are just as damaging on productivity.

A personal price to pay

It is not only the organization that suffers if there is conflict between people. The situation can have serious implications for the individuals concerned and for bystanders who are not immune to events taking place around them. For every incident of conflict, there are likely to be several colleagues who witness or who are drawn into the disagreement. If formal processes come into play, people may be forced to take sides in an adversarial way. This will do nothing to build relationships between those involved and could endanger future team working.

Being involved in a conflict – be it a personality clash or a dispute over performance – can cause psychological stress leading to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. The welfare of the organization is bound up with the health of its employees.

How is restorative justice mediation positioned within the workplace conflict resolution matrix?

While many organizations have adopted policies and procedures to deal with difficult people and situations, rarely are they able to deal effectively with emotional impact of this harmful behavior and its aftermath. Many organizations have similar standard policies and procedures on disciplinary and grievance procedures. And because grievance systems are designed to deal with disputes, not conflicts, they can help escalate the differences people have with each other, rather than resolve them. Engaging staff in conflict with each other is far better than ignoring the conflict and in all this we are encouraged to deal with the grievance informally.

The mediation is a process designed to bring together those most affected by harmful and destructive behavior in the workplace.  The process allows this group (2 individuals only, or a group of people affected by conflict or teams in conflict) of affected people to tell their stories in an honest and open way. A shared understanding of the harm is reached. This group is then in a position to decide what needs to be done to repair the harm and put plans in place to minimize the chance of further harm. The outcomes are recorded as a workplace agreement (similar to a heads of agreement in a formal mediation). The agreement phase creates an opportunity for the whole group of affected people to begin to change the broader elements of the workplace which need to addressed, e.g. poor selection and recruitment practices, lack of encouragement and rewards for efforts and achievement etc.


While it is clear that some behaviors are simply unacceptable in any setting, the presenting crisis of conflict can or may be indicative of a situation, climate or culture of the organization, which has allowed seeds to be sown e.g.

  • Leadership and Management style
  • Poor communication
  • Lack of trust
  • Decision making processes that are not consultative enough among many others

The moment can also indicate a need for training on issues such as;

  • Trust
  • Communication
  • Decision making processes
  • Organizational Culture
  • Conflict and Conflict management among others