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Dealing with workplace conflict

By Richard Peachey
08 November 2019

Whenever people work together, conflict is inevitable. Disagreements can occur even in the best working relationships. But it’s how conflict is managed that can have a real impact on a company’s bottom line, taking up 20 per cent of leadership time, losing up to 370 million working days and costing £33bn a year to UK business.

Undertaking investigations into grievance and disciplinary matters is incredibly demanding of management time and attention, and take expertise and focus away from other core strategic functions. ACAS’s guide for disciplinary and grievance investigations states that an investigation has to be done in a ‘timely manner‘ although no fixed definition, we recommend this is usually around 30-60 calendar days.

However, in many cases, investigations can be long, drawn out processes that drain an organisation of its resources, compromise performance and take up valuable time, each of which has significant personnel and financial costs.

Typically, when a disciplinary or grievance complaint has been raised, a HR advisor will log the case onto a tracking system and refer the case to a hearing manager and an investigating officer. Generally, the investigating manager will write a report and share it with the hearing manager who will decide the outcome of the case. It is useful to use some kind of case management software, such as Allocate’s ER Tracker to monitor the length and details of an investigation.

Hidden costs

Ideally, it is best to resolve an issue before it gets to the investigation stage as there are a lot of hidden costs in conflict management that a lot of people aren’t aware of. An investigation can cost anything from £5,000 to £10,000, depending on its length of time. Costs are generated by the time taken in dealing with the case by the line manager, investigating officer, HR advisor and hearing manager.

What is less visible is the cost of time lost for taking people away from their everyday jobs. Predominantly, in local authorities and more so now in the NHS, employees are taking sick leave or suspensions whilst being investigated.

If a complaint is raised against an employee on an average annual salary, that person may then take sick leave or might be placed on gardening leave. If an investigation interview isn’t until six to eight weeks later, the person on leave is still being paid around £100 per day, but the organisation isn’t benefiting from them being at work. On top of that, the organisation also has to pay for an agency worker to cover the employee, so it is costing the organisation at least double the person’s salary during the investigation.

Because of this, case management software is invaluable for greater visibility and for recording who is out on gardening or sick leave and its duration, so at the end of the case, you can see exactly how much has been spent on covering the person during the process.

The quicker an investigation is dealt with, the less costs are incurred and the less likely a case is to go to an employment tribunal.

In an extreme case of gross misconduct, even if the outcome of the investigation is dismissal due to gross misconduct, if the company has delayed the investigation in an untimely manner, this may cause a pre-conciliation settlement to be agreed. You may have dismissed the individual, but if you haven’t done it correctly, then it can ultimately cost you more in the long run.


Once you have raised a claim, there is a pre-tribunal conciliation run by ACAS where there is another attempt to reach reconciliation between the parties prior to a court proceeding.

If a resolution fails to be met, then the employment lawyers will collate the necessary documents from the case management information, investigation reports and any relating correspondence in order to prepare for the case.  The average tribunal costs for employers is £8,500 in legal fees alone, with an average additional settlement of around £5,400 (depending on the type of claim).

A high proportion of appeals and employment tribunals can be avoided by closing conflict in-line with best practice, such as ACAS’s code of practice, here is a list of top tips to avoid the personal and financial cost of Appeals and Employment Tribunals:

1. Understand the complaint, does it need to be investigated?

  • What does the complainant seek from raising the issue?
  • Is the complaint malicious or vexatious?
  • Could it be resolved informally?
  • Is the complaint serious enough to investigate?
  • Do you want to spend £5000+ investigating it

2. ​Follow your policy, always…

  • No matter which route to resolution you choose, ensure you have, and follow your policy for dealing with it, if you don’t have one, write one
  • When appointing a mediator, investigating officer and hearing manager, ensure they are impartial, and not linked to anyone involved, or the allegation
  • If you investigate, make sure it is robust, fair and timely – many Employment Tribunals are awarded because organisations are too slow

3. Seek help and advice early – it doesn’t have to be a lawyer!

  • HR should be your first call, they can walk you through your policy and procedure and discuss options
  • Call for a specialist, someone who is trained and experienced in dealing with similar situations, be that; facilitating a meeting, mediating the dispute, or investigating the allegation
  • If in doubt, call ACAS 0300 123 1100

4. Be human – keep in contact!

  • Times like these are very difficult for all involved, do you offer support to your parties?
  • Use an impartial contact to keep everyone involved up-to-date, HR is always a good place to find someone
  • Manage everyone’s expectations, most parties get annoyed when they don’t know what is going on

5. Keep records

  • Keep track of dates, calls, meeting notes, this will help you prove that you kept in contact and kept to your policy! – Even if it’s a file in a cupboard! (But preferably some HR software, or at least a spreadsheet)

Organisations are starting to realise that by getting cases investigated quicker, they are saving money.

Developing a culture of conversation is the way forward for organisations, a culture where employees can raise concerns without fear of reprisals, managers can facilitate conversations and mediation can be used to deal with disputes before they escalate to an formal complaint to be investigated.

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