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Breaking The Grip Of Unresolved Conflict

A Simple Method Reduces RiskThe word conflict has a distasteful overtone. A worker who constantly fosters conflict is typically known as a troublemaker, someone who is undesirable and to be avoided.

Deeper down lies the troubling common sense realization that there is a close link between workers who are embroiled in unresolved conflict and a wide variety of losses that are sustained on the job. Increasingly, the failure to resolve conflicts through the employee management process creates risk management liabilities.

Despite this, a survey by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) found that “many companies and organizations in all industries have yet to address the problems” created by interpersonal conflict in the workplace.

Risk management expert George W. Pearson agrees with the ASSE survey. He thinks that most organizations have not undertaken the most basic step — equipping its workers to resolve basic interpersonal conflicts. Tying conflicts to instances of workplace violence, Person states that most business managers do not “understand the elements of threat assessment and crisis management.”

Conflict resolution has been relegated to the secondary duties of the Safety, Health, Environment, Quality professional or, worse, rarely acknowledged as a cause of loss. But it should be.

Interpersonal workplace conflicts are included as one of the basic (root) causes of loss under the category of “personal factors” in Frank E. Bird, Jr.’s famous Loss Causation Model (figures 1-3).

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Personal factors are defined by Bird as follows:

  • inadequate capability: physical/physiological — mental/psychological
  • lack of knowledge
  • lack of skill
  • stress — physical/physiological — mental/psychological
  • improper motivation

This definition reads like a list of the perfect conditions for breeding interpersonal workplace conflicts.

Often workers are asked to perform job tasks or duties for which they feel a lack of job knowledge, skill, and motivation, or for which they are not suited because of physical, mental, or psychological stress. Laborers are asked to labor, line level leaders are told to lead, and managers are tasked with developing systems of management — all with little regard to the workplace dynamics that may foster debilitating, potentially deadly interpersonal conflicts.

Such dynamics are left to the human resource “experts” to consider. When conflict occurs it is more often addressed through human resource policy than it is operational management practice. Most organizations do not employ a practical operations-friendly method for quickly resolving conflicts.

Sadly, interpersonal workplace conflict is not properly addressed until the conflict either:

  1. endangers the health, safety or welfare of the workers, the environment or the public;
  2. precipitates a higher rate for insurance coverage; and/or,
  3. threatens to distract the focus of the workers away from production of the job task.

One of the primary reasons that interpersonal workplace conflicts are left to fester is because they are not perceived as being easy to address.

By definition interpersonal conflict is a personal conflict between two or more people. People problems require people skills to solve. People skills are many times on short order in industries that demand high, risky production.

Conflicts Are Normal
Much of the hesitation to address interpersonal workplace conflicts is removed when a proper perspective on conflict is gained. Conflict is a normal response (behavior) to an oppositional situation.

How simple. It is a normal behavioral response, just like happiness, joy and sadness. No one escapes it; everyone has to deal with it. Its presence is not a sign of weakness nor is its absence a sign of good character. Most people do not seek conflict, but conflict seeks most people.

Ignoring an interpersonal conflict, thus allowing it to fester, often creates a crisis situation that is accompanied by extreme emotion. If unaddressed, it can literally tear apart the fabric of a work team, thus opening the door to unprofitable work practices.

Developmental
This stage of interpersonal conflict is associated with the normal stages of relationship development among workers.
Situational
This stage of interpersonal conflict is associated with the more unpredictable or exceptional conflicts between workers.
Example: the initial acceptance of a new worker turns to distrust because of one of his work habits that annoys others. This is a normal by-product of the relationship development process. The “honeymoon” with the new worker goes away and the reality of his work limitations appears. If the expectation level for the worker was initially too high, then his disappointing work performance might cause interpersonal friction with others. He might be perceived as having an “attitude.” Example: a long overlooked promotion finally gets the best of a worker, evidenced when he “explodes,” becoming uncontrollably furious at a coworker whose behavior he has tolerated for years. He becomes easily irritable over the next few days, showing rapid mood swings and less tolerance of the behaviors of others. He explodes at others for what seem like petty reasons, provoking a similar reaction from them. A sudden interpersonal workplace conflict thus develops.

Stages Of Interpersonal Conflict
Interpersonal workplace conflicts are typically identified in two stages — developmental and situational.

The best practice is to recognize and deal with interpersonal workplace conflicts while they are in the developmental stage, before reaching the situational or crisis stage that places anyone or anything at direct risk.

But as has been stated, getting workers to properly address and/or resolve interpersonal workplace conflicts closely ranks in challenge to getting someone to voluntarily visit a dentist. With conflicts, the fear of sticking one’s nose into the emotional business of others only slightly outweighs the fear of not knowing how to go about the process in a productive, win-win manner.

To prevent a loss of any kind, however, workers must make a commitment to identify and address interpersonal workplace conflicts as a part of preventative process. Any management system that ignores this basic cause of loss is otherwise liable.

Conflicts Can Be Resolved
Equipping workers of all ranks to properly address interpersonal workplace conflicts is as simple as A-B-C.

The A-B-C process of resolving workplace conflicts (described below) allows workers to quickly simplify conflicts into short, manageable segments or statements. Once simply stated, the conflict becomes immediately manageable to the point of resolution.

The interpersonal conflict resolution process is summarized as a three-step process:

  • Achieve contact with each conflicting party.
  • Boil down what the presenting problems are.
  • Cope with the problems by developing plans of action.

A — Achieve Contact (Attention)
The first step in conflict resolution is to simply gain the undivided attention of all parties involved. The goal of achieving contact is to have all parties agree to sit down and commit to a resolution process.

Individual parties involved in the conflict may need to be approached separately in order to urge them to enter the resolution process. Once all parties are gathered, they must agree that they will not leave the meeting until a solution to the conflict is achieved.

The exercise of good people skills is the key to getting both parties to sit down and agree to resolution. Those who attempt to facilitate a resolution must call upon the following people skills in order to get the resolution process rolling.

  1. Attending behaviors. Attitude and actions of concern must be shown. This involves good body posture, appropriate meeting place, manners, eye contact, etc.
  2. Listening. Excellent listening skills must be demonstrated-not verbally forcing the issue of resolution on others. Facilitators should listen to complaints without judging each party, indicating to them that an objective, neutral ear is listening. This will disarm those in conflict and influence them to sit down and work out a solution.

B — Boil Down (The Problem)
Rarely does a conflict consist of only one item. Workplace conflicts are typically composed of a jumble of differing emotions, behavioral tendencies, and battles over job tasks and exercise of authority. The “B” step, boil down, is designed to help both parties talk through the present conflict and boil down the problem(s) into one manageable issue.

Bringing such order out of chaos requires a formalized listening process where each participant tells the facilitator what he thinks the problem is. The facilitator’s role is to listen to each participant’s story and help them boil down what they say into one simple statement that accurately summarizes the primary issue causing the conflict. This is done through the reflective listening process, a people skill.

Allowing each participant to speak without interruption, the facilitator listens to what both parties say is their view of the conflict. After they have spoken, the facilitator then uses a reflective listening question to feed back to them what they have expressed. For example, “Are you telling me…?” or “Did I hear you say…?”

This gives the participants a chance to either agree or disagree with the facilitator’s summary statement of what they have said.

This boiling down process is repeated until the facilitator has a clear understanding of the issues surrounding the conflict and the participants are able to agree upon the one main issue causing it.

Again, the exercise of good people skills is crucial in this step of conflict resolution. In addition to the verbal skills that enable a mess of feverish input to be boiled down into a simple summary statement, the facilitator also helps the parties to focus on the main issues by facing reality, filtering out irrelevant data, revealing past experiences and formulating an understanding of the problem.

C — Cope Actively (Make A Way Out)
Once the main issue causing the conflict has been identified, the last step to resolution is to help the participants cope with the conflict. This involves developing and implementing a plan of action which provides a way out of the conflict.

This plan should take into account several factors:

  • What do the participants want to see happen?
  • Who or what can help them?
  • What else can be done to help out?
  • How is the plan to be carried out?
  • What evaluation is to be done to tell how the plan is doing?

The plan should be simple, easy to carry out and easily evaluated for success. It should focus on only the one main issue identified by both parties (through the boil down process) and it should be put into effect as soon as possible.

Conflicts Require People Skills To Solve
Has this point been made enough? The process of interpersonal workplace conflict resolution demands the exercise of good people skills. Therein lies the most formidable challenge.

People skills are in short supply in industry sectors involving high productivity demands, high safety risk job tasks and high risk/reward investment. In addition to a shortage of people skills, such industry sectors typically face additional challenges to conflict resolution because of high turnover rates, seasonal workers, cultural barriers and a general absence of supervisory skills in line level supervisors.

My statistical research of the behavioral tendencies and personality traits of line level supervisors in such industry sectors indicates that more than 75 percent of supervisors demonstrate a task-oriented approach to supervision versus a people-oriented approach — task before people.

For Risk Management’s Sake
For risk management’s sake the answer to addressing the personal factors of loss causation must lie in equipping current line level supervisors — those most likely to first identify an interpersonal conflict in their work area — with the people skills and method to accomplish interpersonal conflict resolution.

The task may seem daunting, but to neglect it is to knowingly limit the effectiveness of any risk control effort and to invite unnecessary loss.

Developing A Safe Work Environment Through Safety Committees

A great way to foster a safe work environment and involve employees and management in safety initiatives is to maintain an effective Safety Committee. In fact, safety committees can be so valuable in some states they are actually required. Even if your organization already has a safety committee in place, there are approaches that can be implemented to improve their effectiveness.

Who Should Be On A Safety Committee?
Both management and employees should be involved in an organization's safety committee. Including members from all areas of the operation dramatically increases the effectiveness of any safety committee.

What Does It Mean To Be A Member Of Your Organization's Safety Committee?
Safety committee members play a critical role in keeping their coworkers safe and their organization productive. When a safety committee identifies and addresses workplace hazards, it prevents injuries.

Safety committee members should assist in:

  • Identifying unsafe conditions and correcting the problems.
  • Spotting unsafe acts, counseling workers, and addressing these issues with appropriate management.
  • Ensuring that proper work behaviors are “enabled” and supported.
  • Evaluating root causes of any accidents or near misses.
  • The development of needed safeguards and following up on their implementation.

Safety committee members lead by their own example and should continuously seek suggestions, and relay any feedback about workplace improvement from coworkers. In this way, committee members can improve safety in the workplace based on the knowledge of front-line workers. Through the safety committee, employees can help both in preventing losses and maintaining compliance with safety and health regulations.

What Must A Safety Committee Do?
The safety committee should conduct periodic and frequent walkthroughs of work areas. Workstation ergonomics, fire extinguishers, personal protective equipment, safeguards, work practices, and regular equipment and processes should be evaluated. Members should be trained to properly perform walkthroughs, incident investigation and root cause evaluations.

Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) should be checked to make certain that they're up-to-date and available for any employee to view.

Safety alarms (such as fire alarms) and other needed emergency action plan elements should be regularly inspected. Any items from previous Safety Committee meetings should be reviewed, noted, and respective corrective actions implemented. Members should suggest areas where additional training or corrective actions are needed. Unsafe actions should be noted and corrected through retraining and other needed control approaches.

Safety committees need to meet regularly to be effective and are typically conducted on a monthly basis. Members should be prepared to discuss the results of safety walkthroughs, input from employees, as well as any incidents and near misses. Suggestions and ideas should be offered to correct any root causes identified. Minutes from the meeting need to be prepared and posted for all workers and management to read. Distribution of the minutes can open discussions regarding the overall performance of the organization among everyone involved.

Another great way to create a dialogue in safety committee meetings and among employees in general is to include a toolbox talk or a training short. These documents are available on many different safety topics pertinent to your organization's workplace. Discussions on these safety topics may lead to even more improvements in your organization.

Finally, safety committees are a great way to recognize the excellent performance of individual staff members or departments and to accentuate and highlight proper behaviors. This helps all employees and management within an organization realize that safety is important to their organization's goals, and benefits everyone!

Helpful Resource
Being A Safety Committee Member

Reducing Claim Costs By Implementing a First Aid Program

The Worker’s Compensation market in California is hardening. Rates have been increasing on an incremental basis and are expected to continue to rise as the cost of medical care increases. Employers can reduce their insurance costs by instituting strong safety measures and preventing losses from occurring. However, in the event of a small claim, employers can minimize their costs by implementing a first aid program and reducing their experience modification factors.

Under the new experience rating formula instituted by the Workers’ Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau (WCIRB) as of January 1, 2010, all claims under $7001 now go into the modification on a dollar-for-dollar basis, which means that these claims now impact employers more heavily than they have in the past. Claims under $2001 have always gone into the formula at full value and when we talk about instituting a first aid program, we are focusing on these small claims. The medical costs for any claim that meets the legal criteria for ‘first aid’ can be paid by the employer, rather than by the insurance company. Section 5401 of the California Labor Code defines first aid as:

“any one-time treatment, and any follow up visit for the purpose of observation of minor scratches, cuts, burns and splinters, or other minor industrial injuries, which do not ordinarily require medical care. This one-time treatment, and follow-up for the purpose of observation, is considered first aid even though provided by a physician or registered professional personnel.”

The distinction between first aid and a “medical claim” that MUST be paid by the carrier is based on the type of treatment that an employee receives, not whether or not a physician was seen. It is generally accepted in California that the OSHA guides for recordable injuries can help define what claims can be considered “first aid.” This information can be found on the Cal/OSHA website at: http://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/dosh1.html.

If a claim meets the definition of “first aid” and there is no prescription medication and no lost time or work restrictions beyond the date of the injury, the employer may pay the claim costs directly; however, it is still recommended that these claims be reported to the insurance company even if the employer pays the medical costs. When a physician is involved in treatment of a first aid claim, the California Department of Insurance, in conjunction with the Department of Industrial Relations and the Division of Workers’ Compensation reminds employers and physicians that they must comply with Labor Code Section 6409(a) which states that a physician who treats a first aid injury must complete and submit a Doctor’s First Report of Injury or Illness (Form 5021) with the insurance carrier within five (5) calendar days. With this requirement a claim will be reported by the physician or the employer via the Doctor’s First Report of Injury or Illness so it is good practice for employers to be proactive in reporting all claims to their carrier, especially since claims can escalate at a later date.

Many employers are concerned about the impact of frequency on their insurance rates if they report all of their claims, even first aid claims, but a good broker will present a strong case to the carrier at renewal that there were no costs to the carrier associated with those claims (because the employer has a good first aid program) and further that the employer is an even better underwriting risk because they report all losses to the carrier so there are no surprises down the road.

Remember that all claims under $2001 are grouped together and submitted to the WCIRB by the carrier at the unit statistical filing date. The claims go into the experience modification calculation on a dollar-for-dollar basis and are factored into the experience modification for the next three years. If there are no costs paid by the insurance company for some or all of these claims, an employer can dramatically reduce the modification points associated with these small losses. As one mod point can equate to one percent of premium, there is a strong incentive for employers to reduce their experience modification by paying first aid claims whenever legally permissible.

In an ideal situation, the carrier will review the claim to ensure that it meets the first aid criteria and can forward any bills to the employer for payment upon request. Unfortunately, many carriers do not have the time and resources to do this on a consistent basis so it becomes incumbent on employers to take a proactive approach to working with their medical clinic and carrier to implement a successful first aid program. Although it takes some time and coordination, the financial reward for implementing a First Aid Program is worth the effort. You can start by discussing the issue with your insurance carrier and your designated medical clinic. Your broker can also be a resource to facilitate communication, provide education and help to ensure the success of your first aid program.