Disputes between social workers and cuts to HR

Blair McPherson uses an example to illustrate the impact of “back-office” cuts on the frontline

Mediation at work. Image: Ikon Images/Rex

Here’s the scenario:
There has been a late change to the time and place for a meeting which was not communicated to one of the attendees.

She expresses her irritation about this to her colleague who arranged the meeting. However, this colleague is annoyed at what she sees as criticism.

In the heat of the moment she dashes off a strongly worded email, copying in their manager, referring to the conversation as a rant or “tirade”.

The original member of staff is upset. She feels she is being accused of behaving badly with the implication that she was verbally aggressive when all she had said was: “It would have been nice to have been told of the change in arrangements.” She complains to her manager it is low-level intimidation and bullying and the last straw in a series of digs and put-downs.

Can mediation restore harmony within the team or will it be viewed as just another management ploy to make an uncomfortable problem go away?

The manager

This is a falling out between two members of my team.

They have very different personalities. One is rather loud and quick to make her views known, the other almost timid but an extremely competent and hard-working member of the team. Each feels wronged by the other and whilst I have spoken to them individually I don’t feel I can resolve this by bringing them together.

I am relatively new in post and am finding it difficult to maintain harmony within the team. I asked Human Resources (HR) for advice and they set up a mediation meeting and provided a mediator.

The aggrieved

I was very upset to receive this email. The language and tone were typical of the woman. She should not be allowed to get away with it.

I showed the email to my manager, she said she had already seen it and had told my colleague it would have been better if she had not sent it. That’s just not good enough. My manager doesn’t seem willing to challenge this member of staff about her behaviour so I said I wanted to make a formal complaint.

I only agreed to this mediation because because my manager said we had to try this first. If I’m not satisfied with the outcome then I can make a formal complaint.

The other party

This whole thing is ridiculous! The manager should tell her she is being over sensitive and blowing things out of all proportion.

In my email I apologised for the fact that she was not told about the change in arrangements but it really wasn’t my responsibility. Her manager should have told her. I feel I was perfectly justified in saying I shouldn’t have been subjected to a such a “tirade”.

I am only attending this mediation meeting because my manager says that will be an end to the matter.

The mediator

It is the organisation’s policy to try and resolve disputes between members of staff informally by independent mediation.

In most cases you would have expected an experienced manager to resolve this by talking to the two individuals but it is surprising how often managers seem to lack the confidence to do this. Typically the manager will say it is a personality conflict and they have tried managing the situation by keeping the individuals apart.

More often than not, the reality is the manager has failed to challenge some inappropriate behaviour over a period of time. There is conflict in the team but they have ignored it. Then some apparently minor incident becomes the spark for a big row and offloading a history of unresolved grievances.

My previous mediation was a seemingly trivial argument between someone who wanted the window open to let in some fresh air and someone who complained they were sitting in a draft. No one was prepared to compromise. There was a general lack of tolerance and respect within the office and one of those involved was rightly or wrongly considered, “difficult to work with”.

If I can get each party to say what they want out of this process I may be able to resolve the situation informally. The organisation wants to avoid a formal grievance and disciplinary investigation because these are time consuming, messy and tend to throw up a lot of management issues.

Head of HR

We have had a lot more staffing issues since we more or less cut all management training as part of the budget savings.

In the past we had a large HR department with a lot of experience in digging managers out of holes they had dug themselves into. Now almost all the HR work has been outsourced and the small remaining team doesn’t have the capacity, experience or skills to deal with these situations.

We end up using expensive, independent mediators and still in far too many cases it still goes to a formal complaint and we end up having to pay for investigators as well.

Head of operations

The board want to know why we are spending so much money on expensive independent mediators and investigators.

They seem to forget how keen they were to outsource HR and reap the savings. They also seem to have forgotten the decision that we could not afford the management development program and of course they eagerly approved the last round of voluntary redundancies and early retirements, to avoid compulsory redundancies, which saw a lot of experienced managers leaving the organisation.

The result
The aggrieved: “I wish I had not bothered. I will be making a formal complaint.”

Blair McPherson is a former director of community services and is now an author and blogger on management in the public sector www.blairmcpherson.co.uk 

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