Why pay for a Conflict assessment?

"THE LAUNDRY"

For many years I worked for an organization that owned and operated a Long-Term Care (LTC) Home and housing for independent seniors.  Among other responsibilities, I was the Director of Human Resources. 

It was a very interesting time in the Home’s history.  The Home is located in a small town.  At the time of the incident I am relating, they were the third largest employer in town.  Many of the staff, particularly those in non-clinical positions had worked for the Home for many years.  Some of the staff were second generation employees.  Many of the staff had family who had helped create and support the charitable organization that owned and operated the Home. 

The original Home was built in the mid-Sixties and the Ministry of Health had an initiative for older LTC Homes to rebuild.  Designing and building a new LTC Home that better met Residents’ needs was exciting but also fraught with many challenges.  We expected some of the them, but other challenges popped up that we hadn’t expected.  We didn’t discover them until after we thought we were all settled and functioning well in the new Home.  One of these challenges was THE LAUNDRY!

A LTC Home requires Housekeeping staff to keep the Home clean and sterilized.  This Home also did laundry on site and also employed Laundry staff.  They were essentially the same position with the same rate of pay, although staff would be assigned to either Housekeeping or the Laundry.  Many of the staff in this Home cross trained and would pick up both Housekeeping or Laundry shifts when available. 

Management started to notice that there was a division forming between the Housekeeping Aides and the Laundry Aides that hadn’t existed before.  The division started as a coolness between the groups and refusals of Housekeeping Aides to fill Laundry shifts and vice versa.    It soon escalated to obvious hostility between workers, some of whom had been friends for many years.

The Director of Environment Services, who supervised both teams, was at a loss to explain why this was happening.  The job routines had changed, but he felt that any concerns over those changes had been addressed and were no longer a problem.  Except for the inter-departmental hostility, everyone was working well and there were no disciplinary or performance issues.  Schedules were being posted on time and he felt there was open communication.  We had a good relationship with the Union and we had not received a grievance or any complaint from them.  We could find no reason for this breakdown in the relationship between the departments, but it was affecting the work of both departments.

We consulted our Harassment Policy.  This occurred prior to the inclusion of Workplace Harassment in the Occupational Health and Safety Act, but many organizations had Harassment Policies.  In this Home’s Harassment Policy, a Consultant with alternative dispute resolution experience was named as the person to contact if an issue of Harassment arose.  Although we hadn’t identified an infraction of the Harassment Policy, we felt this would be the person who we should bring in to help with the situation.

The consultant, Tom, met with members of the Management Team.  He reviewed policies, work routines, schedules and the physical locations where the Housekeeping and Laundry Aides worked.  He then conducted interviews with many of the Aides including full time Aides, part time Aides, casual Aides (those who have no regular schedule but who are offered vacant shifts).  When he completed his investigation, he wrote a report of what he had discovered.  This was not an investigation into an allegation, so he also met with the Management Team to tell us what he had discovered.

Tom discovered that the laundry was now THE LAUNDRY.  Housekeepers do not have a housekeeping office or staffroom, so rather than put the departmental communication board in the hall, the Director of Environment Services had hung it in THE LAUNDRY.  Housekeepers had to go to THE LAUNDRY to get their schedules, read memos from their supervisor and to generally know what was going on.  Laundry Aides started an hour earlier than Housekeeping Aides, so if a Housekeeping Aide called in sick they called THE LAUNDRY and a Laundry Aide was responsible to call the list of Aides to find a replacement.  With out intending to, we had created a power imbalance between the two staff groups.  We had created THE LAUNDRY.

The Management team had not been able to see what Tom’s fresh eyes on the problem was able to determine.  Despite our best efforts to be objective about the situation, we were too integral to the problem to be able to see it. 

As managers and business owners we often resist spending the money to have a third party consultant assess conflict in our workplaces.  We hope the conflict will resolve itself, but generally it escalates.  People either become openly hostile, or they hide it with “good manners’ but collaboration, cooperation and ultimately productivity suffer.   If the situation I described had not been resolved, it would likely have led to discipline up to and including termination.   Work was being disrupted and productivity would have continued to spiral downward.  High performing employees who are working in a conflict ridden environment tend to move on to workplaces where they can be happier.  The cost of ignoring conflict significantly outweighs to cost of resolving the problem early.  Bringing Fresh Eyes to a problem is often the route to a quick and satisfactory solution.

Learn more about how Coact can be your Respect in the Workplace Advisor through our  Workplace Investigations and Workplace Mediation services. 

If you are interested in bringing Fresh Eyes to issues causing conflict in your workplace, please call Coact at 905-581-2701, email karen@coactworks.com or visit our website:  http://www.coactworks.com/prevention/