Being able to recognise, understand and deal with workplace conflicts will keep you safe from personal grievance cases and minimise the impact disputes can have on your business. Preparing for conflicts before they happen is the best approach – which is why all your employment agreements should clearly outline how your business handles employee disputes. It is also helpful to have clear policies and procedures in place. Typically, workplace issues don’t just disappear. In fact, it’s more common that they’ll escalate if no action is taken.

Proactively try to resolve a problem as soon as you spot one, by:

  • dealing with any employee problem openly, honestly and without misleading the employee
  • treating staff consistently and without favouritism
  • discussing the issue as soon as you’re aware of it
  • clarifying what the problem is and trying to resolve it.

Set clear expectations for your employees — and make your own job easier — by creating policies and procedures that outline what’s expected. These documents support the employment agreements you have with your employees, and mean you and your staff know exactly what will be done if there’s a problem. Policies and procedures are an important tool in managing your employees. They work alongside employment agreements to make sure both parties are clear on the expectations and obligations of the employment relationship.

They can:

  • reduce the risk that anyone misunderstands the conditions of employment
  • ensure fairness
  • give you a good reference point to confirm that you’re complying with all relevant legislation
  • help you get consistency across multiple locations.

Thinking about how you want your business to run, documenting it, and sharing it with your employees, will save you time and money in the long run.

The Fair Work Australian Government website outlines the features of a good dispute resolution process as follows:

  • be simple
  • allow appropriate stages so that matters can, wherever possible, be resolved at the workplace
  • encourage parties to agree on a process that suits them if the dispute reaches the Fair Work Commission
  • provide the Fair Work Commission with the necessary discretion and power to ensure settlement of the dispute if the dispute remains unresolved after the early stages of the dispute resolution procedure have been attempted.

The website goes on to say that the best practice dispute resolution outcomes should be:

  • quick – the issues should be resolved quickly rather than allowing them to escalate through inaction
  • fair – all relevant parties should be consulted so that all sides of the story are taken into account
  • handled sensitively – disputes should, where possible and appropriate, be resolved in a confidential context in order to minimise impact on employees not affected by the dispute
  • transparent – the procedure should be made known to every employee.

Dispute resolution procedures should not interfere with the continued operation of the business where possible. Any dispute resolution clause in an agreement, contract or policy should require that work is to continue normally during the dispute resolution process subject to any reasonable concerns about health and safety.

Generally, the FW Act does not authorise employees to stop performing work while a dispute is being resolved.

The dispute resolution policy should promote open communication and foster a safe environment for addressing differences of opinions. There should be a clear statement protecting employees from retribution for raising legitimate complaints and concerns using the dispute resolution process. With this type of policy in place businesses will be better positioned to limit the time and impact disputes could have on the business and relationships involved. They will also be more prepared if they have thought about situations that may arise for employees and have procedures in place already to handle them.