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Redefining Conflict Management Systems Options

Extract #4 from Workplaces That Work: A Guide to Conflict Management in Union and Non-Union Work Environments (Aurora: Canada Law Book, 2006)

This article explores system options for managing conflict in the non-union workplace. This is intended to build upon the work done by others in this area by seeking to categorize the conflict management options as interest-based, rights-based, power-based or communication-based.

“Interest-based” options focus on uncovering and meeting the interests of the stakeholders in the particular dispute. The “right-based” option seeks to create or enforce a right for one or both sides of the dispute. The “communication-based” option aims at improving the flow of information between the various workplace participants as a conflict management strategy. “Power-based” options involve the exercise of power to resolve conflicts.

I. Interest-Based Options

Interest-based options seek to meet the interests of the disputing parties. Interests consist of fears, concerns, needs, hopes and expectations.

Interest-based Negotiation

Negotiation is distinguished from mediation in that it does not involve the use of a third party. Negotiation is the most common form of self-help conflict management in the workplace. This is why negotiation training is an effective option for conflict management in the workplace. Well trained individual actors are better able to resolve their own conflicts through negotiation, and thus avoid the need for other options.

Interest-based negotiating focuses on the interests of the parties. The participants state their interests, explore the interests of the other party, and seek to problem-solve by inventing options that will satisfy both parties’ interests. This form of negotiation is focused upon the problem at hand and not on victory over the other party.

Mediation Options

Mediation is a voluntary dispute resolution process where an impartial third party assists the disputants to achieve a mutually acceptable agreement.

1. Peer Mediation

Some workplaces train a pool of employees in mediation skills so they may help disputants resolve their differences. This is distinguished from managerial mediation in that the peer-mediator has no power over the disputants and imposes no solutions. Peer mediation is distinguished from peer conflict coaching by its emphasis on resolving the conflict in question rather than improving the conflict management skills of workplace participants.

2. Managerial Mediation

When a person in a position of authority acts as a neutral agent to bring disputants together to resolve differences, it is called managerial mediation. This is distinguished from peer mediation because the managerial mediator can impose a solution if the parties cannot settle the difference themselves. This allows disputes to be addressed informally at first without resort to power. Also it allows the manager to identify structural issues that may be leading to conflict in the workplace.

3. External Mediation

In some situations, it is advisable to employ the talents of an external mediator. Externals are often called upon when the issues are too complex or sensitive to be resolved with the use of internal resources. External mediators are generally expensive and are not experts in the particular workplace culture in which they mediate.

4. Conflict Coaching

Conflict coaching is used at any stage in the life of a conflict. It helps employees to develop and improve the way they deal with conflict. Coaching can be performed by a number of the workplace actors – such as supervisors, managers, peers, human resource professionals, Ombuds, trainers or external consultants. The role of the coach is to train a voluntary participant to manage conflict on his or her own.


The Ombuds function contains a constellation of fairness options. The office of an Ombuds is usually found in larger organizations where it is possible to devote significant resources to the process. The Ombuds operates as an independent voice in the workplace. The office receives complaints and attempts to resolve them. At times the Ombuds will draw complaints to the attention of the senior leadership of the organization in a way that maintains the confidentiality of the complainants. Often the office collects statistics on complaints and reports trends to the senior leadership. This allows the organization to develop strategies to deal with broader level structural conflicts. While receiving these complaints, some Ombuds attempt to find resolutions through mediation. They facilitate constructive communication through structural advocacy.

Open Door Policy

Some employers have an “open door” policy with their employees. Employees can choose to approach more senior managers directly with problems rather than following the normal hierarchies.

Workplace Partnering/Team Approaches

Workplace partnering uses team-building approaches to build trust relationships among the team and engage the members to value team-centered goals in the completion of their work.

360 Degree Reviews

360 degree reviews are a process where an individual’s performance is assessed by both superiors and subordinates – and in turn the individual assesses the performance of both his/her superiors and subordinates. One purpose is to open up the lines of communication between the various workplace participants. Another is to instill a sense of fairness into the roles of the workplace actors – discouraging them from abusing their authority because it will be reported upon in a properly functioning system

II. Rights-Based Options

Rights-based options rely on a forum to hear and enforce the “rights” of workplace participants. The following options address both legal and non-legal rights in the workplace. They determine whether a right has been violated and what the remedy for that violation should be.

Early Neutral Evaluation (ENE)

Early neutral evaluation (ENE) is used in the shadow of litigation to help the parties to determine the strengths and weaknesses of their case should they proceed to external litigation. ENE helps parties to reach agreement outside of litigation by clarifying what their litigation alternative might be.

Internal Peer Review Panel

Some companies have a committee that reviews complaints and makes recommendations to senior management. These panels have decision-making authority and thus are forums where employees can get their complaints addressed. They are usually comprised of senior, well respected employees and management members. While they can range in actual authority, these panels normally do not normally have the power to alter existing polices or other conditions of employment.


Workplace investigations establish legitimacy about “findings of fact” in contentious workplace conflicts, such as disciplinary matters, performance issues or workplace discrimination and harassment issues. The investigation is performed by an external investigator or by a “disinterested” workplace participant (like another manager, HR professional or Ombuds). The investigator provides observations, findings of fact, and recommendations but leaves decision-making to management.


Arbitration uses a neutral third party to make binding decisions after hearing evidence from the parties. Arbitration is often the last step in a dispute resolution system. This is the most expensive remedy short of litigation and can be very resource intensive. Some arbitration processes, though, are expedited and, by agreement of the parties, many cases are resolved in one sitting with the arbitrator.

Mediation – Arbitration

Mediation-Arbitration is distinguished from either mediation or arbitration in that a third party plays both roles. The Mediator-Arbitrator is typically an external agent because of the level of expertise required. Nevertheless, an internal mediator-arbitrator could be used to put closure to workplace conflicts. Mediation-Arbitration is most valuable where there are a number of complex issues and a number of parties involved in the conflict.

Non-Union Grievance Procedure

Many workplaces have experimented with a grievance procedure for managing workplace conflict and ensuring fairness in the workplace. Similar to unionized grievance procedures, the non-union grievance procedure begins with an informal step and then, if needed, a more formal step where the aggrieved individual or group has representation (from Human Resources or a respected manager). The representative advocates for the grievor. The substance of the grievance will likely be associated with an entitlement under a workplace policy or procedure.

III. Power-Based Options

Power-based options use traditional power structures in the workplace to resolve conflict. Resort to “power” does not require justification for fairness – as it might for certain rights or interest-based options. The workplace participants simply exert the power available to them – whether or not the use of that power is justified.

Workplace Regulation

Workplace regulation is the most common form of conflict management. The employer creates a clear list of rules for workplace governance and workplace interaction in an effort to provide clarity for workplace participants. It reduces conflict related to unclear work direction or standards. There are two types of workplace regulation: external regulation and internal regulation. External regulations are the laws governed from outside the workplace – the minimum statutory standards found in Human Rights, Employment Standards and Occupational Health and Safety legislation, along with the Common Law. Internal workplace regulation is a set of internal rules implemented by the employer to mitigate conflict. Examples of workplace regulation are: codes of conduct, business expense procedures, standard work practice rules, and procedural guidelines and directives.

Managerial Decision-Making

One of the most widespread forms of conflict management is managerial decision-making. The manager’s role in preventing, causing and resolving conflict, makes managerial decision-making an option to consider carefully.

Good management decision-making prevents conflict and puts a decisive end to the existing conflict. Well trained managers can make fair and effective decisions, leaving employees satisfied with the results. On the other hand, poor management decision-making leads to further conflict as one or more parties feel that they are not being treated fairly.


In a workplace without options for conflict management, the employees often resign or are dismissed. This “final solution” is used at great expense to everyone and does not necessarily address the conflict left in the workplace. Often this option is taken without consideration of the underlying conflicts. Thus those conflicts remain unresolved, festering and resurfacing later in other contexts among other employees.

IV. Communication-Based Options

Communication-based options reduce conflict by ensuring a better understanding of the workplace and the nature of conflict in the workplace

Information Exchange Facility

The office bulletin board has come a long way. Central to an efficient and competitive workplace is access to information. This has led to sophisticated workplace communications that can also be used to mitigate conflict at work. Information exchange facilities provide easy access to workplace information via email, text messaging, websites or electronic bulletin boards. Websites contain workplace guidelines (i.e. benefits, policies, procedures and in unionized work environments, various collective agreements and letters of understanding).

But the exchange goes both ways. Employees have new avenues to confidentially respond to their workplace. This feedback can range from commentary on the work environment to whistle-blowing. It is an invaluable conflict management tool because it can quickly and confidentially clarify issues that might otherwise lead to conflict. It also acts as an early warning system for the employer. Data can be generated about the types of issues that are raised by employees, charting trends that can in turn suggest action for improvement.

Training as a Conflict Management Option

Training as an intervention tool is one option for the workplace fairness system. Training can be used as an entry point to discuss conflict resolution options. . .

Personality Indication Tools as a Fairness Option

These “tests” are communication-based options since they enhance understanding. People analyze their own responses to conflict and their colleagues’ responses. This enhances understanding and improves harmony.


Every non-union workplace will have a conflict management system that contains some of these options. The options do not normally operate in isolation but are a part of an integrated system. Most workplaces employ a number of options.

In Workplaces That Work, the reader will be provided with checklists and tools to define the conflict management system in the workplace. To learn more about conflict management options, visit


Blaine Donais

Blaine Donais B.A., LL.B., LL.M. (ADR), RPDR, C. Med., author of Workplaces That Work, published by Canada Law Book, has spent many years working with public and private sector professionals. He is President and Founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute, Conflict Management Solutions. He has represented professionals as a labour… MORE >

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