8.5 Organisations: dealing with internal disputes and complaints
Every organisation will experience periods of internal discord, tension and conflict. But they must have ways of resolving these if they are to carry out their functions and achieve their goals.
8.5.1 Recurrent sources of internal conflict and complaint
There are some common sources of complaint arising within organisations. Most have to do with the professional roles and relationships within and between the governing body, management and staff, as seen below.
When these sources of discord are allowed to continue unchecked, the internal culture of an organisation can quickly deteriorate into one of mistrust and rumour mongering, where decision making, teamwork and outcomes are undermined.
This is where having clear policies and procedures that are well understood, respected and consistently enforced becomes critical both for prevention and effective intervention.
Check-up: Our dispute resolution processes
You can use this check-up to see what you are doing well to manage disputes or grievances in your organisation or group and get ideas for other things you could do to improve your processes.
This check-up can be used by organisations to get a quick idea of where they are at in the ways they handle dispute, grievances and complaints.
It shouldn’t replace a thorough evaluation of your arrangements. It is simply a starting point, to give you an overall picture.
Its main purpose is to help you:
- identify key areas of your policies and procedures where there might be some problems or gaps
- identify your internal strengths
- start discussions and get people involved
- work out which areas need closer evaluation and possible change
- figure out some initial priorities.
8.5.2 Some common best practice approaches
Those organisations that have developed stable and enforceable policies and procedures for dealing with internal conflict and complaints are more resilient in times of great change and external crises, and more likely to achieve their goals.
Most solutions share the same common steps for dealing with complaints and disputes (such as those set out in section 8.4.2).
“Warlpiri issues will be dealt with initially by meeting quietly with Elders, directors or members as required. Staff disputes will be handled initially by the Operations Manager and if this is not appropriate or ineffective, by the directors.
If the dispute is about the Act or the corporation’s rules, the directors or any of the dispute parties may ask ORIC for an opinion. If the directors cannot resolve the dispute, it must be put to the members to resolve at a general meeting.”
(Warlpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation, Application to the 2012 Indigenous Governance Awards)
Today, instead of adopting off-the-shelf rules created by others, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations are developing their own customised policy manuals and codes of conduct to suit their specific needs and operating environments.
To back these up, they then provide in-house training and inductions on these, in order to pre-empt internal tensions, misconduct and conflict.
The best approaches usually have clear definitions about:
- who should be involved in different complaints
- the roles, rights and responsibilities of those involved
- the procedures and options available to them
- the way communications and discussions will be carried out
- the kind of cultural input and factors that should be taken into account
- other kinds of external expertise available, including allowing individuals to resolve their grievance through any external legal means at any stage of the process
- the need for timeliness so that disputes are not left to simmer
- requirements for full documentation of the process and outcomes.
8.5.3 Conflict within the governing body
“Board members are commonly recruited to bring diverse views on issues to board debates and decision making. Constructive disagreements between board members are encouraged in a well-functioning board. They can generally be managed by following proper rules of procedure and encouragement of good listening skills. However, in the heat of board debate, disagreements sometimes degenerate into serious conflict on issues or between personalities.”
(Canadian Institute on Governance , Policies for First Nations)
While differences of opinion are normal, ongoing conflict between the members of a board will undermine the board’s overall capacity to govern well. Examples of ongoing conflict include:
- unhelpful disunity and public brawling
- bullying and politicised arguments at meetings
- intimidation and public insults of staff by the governing body.
Behaviour like this presents a poor example to staff and community members, who may then think it is acceptable to follow suit.
Such behaviour constitutes a failure of governance and can seriously damage an organisation’s good reputation and effectiveness.
It may even result in demands for greater accountability, or unilateral intervention, by external agencies into the governance of your organisation.
These internal problems require strong remedial action.
This is a tough thing to do, but being able to negotiate these sensitive issues is a sign of mature governance.
The chairperson of the governing body needs to have the confidence and experience to intervene, provide advice and support to resolve tensions, and be able to work with individuals on the governing body who may be experiencing difficulties in their duties.
The top manager has an important role in supporting the chairperson’s mediation role, and encouraging the governing body to follow its own code of conduct.
Both the chair and top manager need to be able to work well together to maintain internal harmony and teamwork within the governing body.
Today, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations are developing innovative strategies to build the capacity of their governing bodies to deal with their own issues of conflict and misconduct, and to better support the same processes amongst their managers and staff.
8.5.4 Conflict between the governing body and top manager
Good communication, trust and mutual respect between a governing body and its executive management is essential to effective governance.
One of the most important duties of a governing body is to hire, supervise, evaluate, and dismiss their top manager. Unfortunately, this job is often poorly done by the governing body, or undermined because of tension and conflict between its members and the top manager.
When there is antagonism, distrust and low mutual respect in this important relationship, an organisation will begin to travel in directions that are contrary to its overall vision.
Ongoing conflict is a common cause of high turnover of leaders, managers and staff, and a critical factor in the success or failure of an organisation.
This relationship needs to be a real working partnership, so it is important to ensure that early signs of discord or dispute are addressed early. Below are several effective strategies.
8.5.5 Conflict among staff and with management
The best atmosphere for staff members is one of collaboration, mutual respect and stable leadership from above. The staff of many successful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations have described it as ‘being like a family’.
“A workplace that is physically and emotionally safe is conducive to productive, harmonious work relations.”
(‘Maps to Success. Successful Strategies for Indigenous Organisations’, AIATSIS 2007)
When internal conflict or tension does arise—whether among staff members or between them and management—it is best resolved, initially, by the most immediate level in the chain of command. The facts should be considered and the relevant parties brought together for discussions.
If this is not successful, the top manager should intervene to make a final decision or take the process to another stage of mediation.
Some organisations expect their governing bodies (and specifically the chairperson) to become involved in conflict between management and staff. Others specifically restrict this from happening. Many organisations develop processes to ask leaders or elders from the wider community for advice and intervention.
Whatever your approach it needs to be well communicated to and understood by all staff.
Staff dissatisfaction and poor work performance can easily erupt into disputes or grievances, but can be effectively prevented through several effective strategies.