By Vaughan Granier

If an employee sent one of your staff the following email, what would it say about how they fit into the team?

“Best you brief me on what is to be discussed because I need to prepare myself to listen to bulls**t without losing my temper with the perpetrator of the greatest crime since the Holocaust…… that would be the CEO.”

That email came from Ms Vicki Walker, who was until 2007 a financial controller (accountant) at Auckland company ProCare Health Ltd.

Walker was sacked in December 2007 but returned with an Employment Relations Authority (ERA) claim for unfair dismissal in 2009. The ERA initially found Walker received no warnings, and while she had contributed to disharmony in the workplace it wasn’t to the extent that dismissal was fair or reasonable.

Walker was initially awarded $14,500 but returned to the Employment Court in 2011 seeking far greater compensation – as much as $80,000-90,000. On the appeal, ruled upon in 2012, the employer was given a chance to offer its evidence again – evidence which showed Walker had greatly contributed to dysfunction and conflict in her team. Walker’s appeal was struck out, all compensation was lost, leaving Walker with nothing.

How did the dynamic in this particular workplace become so volatile?

It all hinged around Walker’s aggressive emails – although the definition of ‘aggressive’ was initially contested. The employer ProCare Health didn’t have a style or etiquette guide in place for employees using email, so it wasn’t clear what was regarded as unacceptable communication, the ERA initially found.

According to Employment Court’s judge, however, Walker had a ‘confrontational communication style,’ and frequently sent conflict-causing emails like the one above. Also:

  • “Shouting emails” were repeatedly sent to staff by the plaintiff – with one prompted by a spat over a Christmas lunch.
  • ProCare told the ERA Walker had caused disharmony in the workplace by using block capitals, bold typeface, and red text in her emails, which was considered confrontational by other staff members.
  • Walker had also acted provocatively in demanding to view complaints laid against her by colleagues. These were complaints that the employer had wanted to allay because reviving the complaints “would escalate tensions and necessitate a formal investigation,” ProCare told Walker.

All in all, Judge Ford ruled that ProCare had acted in a procedurally fair manner and Walker’s dismissal was justified, saying her behaviour had been “uncompromising and largely irrational”.

The employer had contributed some very helpful remedies to address the workplace issues, including mediation, an independent review, appointing an HR specialist to work with the team, offering paid leave, and counselling and offering to engage with Walker’s doctor.

The court found there was proof of “irreconcilable incompatibility” which meant “no organisation could withstand this type of disharmony.”

Let’s look at how your workplace might turn ‘irreconcilable incompatibility’ into peace, and harmony – and prevent termination of employment and a costly court case where embarrassing emails are made public.

1. Firstly, understand the dynamics of any conflicts going on in your workplace

To effectively mediate any personality clash, it’s crucial to begin by comprehending the underlying dynamics that contribute to conflict. Individuals possess unique personality traits, communication styles, and emotional responses that can clash with those of others. Identifying these differences and recognising their impact on the conflict is the first step towards resolution.

What this means in practical terms: if you can see conflict or clashes occurring, try mapping out each participant’s personality style. Consider utilising an internal or external consultant to potentially quantify the personality dynamics at play, which might necessitate reorganising who works with whom. You can also make the most of HR Assured’s tools and resources which are stored in the software – for example, building personal development goals for your employees.

2. Mediation

Performance management can have a harsh undertone to it, so now is the time to use mediation in your workplace. Mediation allows you to create a safe and neutral environment for the conflicting parties to express their concerns openly. Choose a neutral location where both individuals feel comfortable.

Establish ground rules to set the tone for constructive dialogue, such as:

  • Requirement for active listening;
  • Requirement of respect; and
  • refrain from personal attacks.

The employer should refrain from attempting to impose an outcome and avoid preferences for one or the other individual. Instead, the employer as a mediator should focus on helping the individuals to find their own solution to the issue.

3. Use active listening

Active listening to prevent misunderstanding in the workplace is a fundamental skill in mediation. Encourage every individual to actively listen to the other’s perspective without interruption. This helps foster empathy and understanding. Reflective listening techniques, such as paraphrasing and summarising, can be employed to ensure both parties feel heard and validated.

4. Identify underlying issues

Identifying underlying issues and common ground is essential. It’s about helping both parties identify the root causes of their conflict. Often, personality clashes arise from deeper issues such as miscommunication, unmet expectations, or differing values. Sometimes individuals can go through personal situations that decrease their emotional resilience, and it’s important to factor this into how the employer approaches an issue, while at the same time, not compromising on minimum behavioural expectations. Facilitate a discussion to find common ground and shared interests, which can serve as a foundation for resolution.

5. Facilitating effective communication

Mediation involves promoting healthy and effective communication between the parties. Encourage the use of “I feel” statements to express personal feelings rather than making accusatory remarks.

Teach active communication techniques, such as the following:

  • Ask staff to express needs and concerns constructively; and
  • Show staff how to avoid assumptions or generalisations.

6. Generating collaborative solutions. That means going for a win-win scenario

Guide the individuals towards generating collaborative solutions that address their concerns and interests. Brainstorming techniques can be employed to encourage creativity and explore alternative perspectives. Aim for win-win solutions that consider the needs and aspirations of both parties.

7. Develop an action plan and be sure to follow it up

After reaching an agreement, assist the individuals in developing a concrete action plan to implement the solutions discussed. Encourage them to set realistic goals, establish a timeline, and define roles and responsibilities. Additionally, establish a follow-up mechanism to monitor progress and address any emerging issues.

Is conflict still around after following these steps? Don’t despair. Use our advice line, software and resources

By implementing the steps outlined in this guide, we can contribute to fostering healthier relationships, improved teamwork, and a more harmonious environment.

Underscoring it all should be a smart wraparound solution in which Telephone Advisory support, a robust Knowledge Base, and helpful workflows in HRA Cloud combine to carry you through occasional team turbulence. Contact us today for the support you need.

Vaughan Granier is the National Workplace Relations Manager for HR Assured NZ. He has over 24 years’ experience in international human resources, health and safety, and workplace relations management. With over 10 years working in New Zealand and Australian companies, he provides in-depth support to leadership teams across all areas of HR, Health and Safety, and employee management.