Understanding employees' behaviour during workplace conflicts

Newsletter articles

1 Sep 2011

Employment Studies Issue 14

Andrea Broughton, Principal Research Fellow

Andrea BroughtonFinding out what influences employees’ behaviour during workplace conflicts and disputes is key to understanding why employees decide for or against making a claim to an employment tribunal. If we can better understand motives and behaviour, more can be done to try to resolve conflicts and avoid escalation, resulting in fewer claims being taken to employment tribunals. This, in turn, will help to reduce costs, time and stress for all those involved.

IES recently carried out a small-scale research project, based on a literature review, for the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), aiming to examine the key drivers behind employee behaviour during conflicts. This research is particularly pertinent in the context of a consultation carried out by BIS earlier this year, aimed at gathering views on improving the way in which workplace disputes are resolved.

Theories behind behavioural drivers

A number of theories can help to explain employee behaviour in a conflict situation. For example, under the theory of attribution bias, if an individual attributes the event to the personality or character of the individual who caused the event, rather than accepting that this is just the result of random events, this can lead to anger and a desire to seek to restore justice.

Under the theory of loss aversion, individuals, when faced with a sure loss, tend to gamble, even if the expected loss from the gamble is large, as they fear that, having lost everything, there is nothing more to lose. In an employment context, this may lead to those faced with job loss, particularly those with long service and therefore a greater level of emotional investment in the workplace (enhanced loss aversion), to initiate a claim.

Under the theory of reactive devaluation, individuals involved in a dispute tend to diminish the attractiveness of an offer simply because it originates from a perceived opponent. In the case of an employment dispute, for example, a compromise proposal may be rated less positively when proposed by someone on the “other side” than when proposed by someone who is seen as neutral or an ally.

Under the theory of optimistic overconfidence, individuals are often overconfident in their predictions concerning the outcome of future events. The implication of this for dispute resolution is that disputants may be unwilling to settle a dispute if one or both parties overestimate their chances of prevailing in litigation. Analysis of the 2008 Survey of Employment Tribunal Applications (SETA 2008) investigating parties’ expectations with regard to employment tribunal claims has suggested the operation of optimistic overconfidence in relation to both views of likely success at the outset of a case, and in the amount of award claimants expect to receive at a hearing, compared with the final offer made.

Organisational justice

Perceptions of organisational justice also play a part in underpinning employee behaviour in a conflict situation. We identified three types of organisational justice:

  • distributive justice, which refers to the perceived fairness of outcomes;
  • procedural justice, which referes to the perceived fairness of the procedures by which outcomes are determined; and
  • interactional justice, which refers to the perceived fairness of interpersonal treatment.

Whilst all three appear important, it seems that procedural and interactional justice can compensate for low levels of distributive justice. For example, if an employee believes that a procedure was followed fairly, and that they were treated with dignity and respect throughout, this may compensate for the fact that the outcome of the procedure was negative for them personally.

The influence of trade unions

Trade union presence in an organisation appears to be associated with lower dismissal rates. This may be due to issues such as trade unions being able to present an employee’s case to a manager in a credible way, which in turn may restrain employee actions, higher employee engagement as a result of trade union presence, enabling more disputes to be resolved at an early stage, or trade unions being able to restrain managerial action.

However, the influence of trade unions is likely to be affected by the nature and quality of their relationships with managers. In the absence of high-trust relations, union representatives may adopt more adversarial approaches in defending members.

Extraorganisational factors

We found that advice and guidance from sources such as colleagues, family and friends may encourage individuals to consider claiming. However, the most common source of advice for claimants was a lawyer, followed by trade unions and Citizens Advice.

Overall, research finds that when employees are unsure about the causes of workplace events, they are more likely to be influenced by the opinions of other people – for example, if they cannot directly attribute the cause of an event to a particular individual – meaning that the cause may be open to interpretation.

There is also evidence to suggest that, when deciding whether to follow advice, individuals are more likely to give more weight to their own opinion than that of their adviser (so called egocentric advice discounting), although they tend to be more responsive to advice from those with greater age, education and life experience, or if they have paid for advice.

Policy implications

From our findings, we were able to make a range of policy implications. These centre around:

  • encouraging more realistic expectations among employees of the outcome of a formal claim;
  • encouraging the development of trust within organisations: if the parties involved in a dispute have a basis of trust, any conflict that they enter into is more likely to be resolvable without escalation;
  • building empathy between individuals in the workforce, which may help to contain the escalation of conflicts;
  • avoiding escalation by reinforcing procedural and interactional justice within organisations. The role of line managers is particularly key in this regard;
  • helping individuals to value the offer from the other party, by building trust and, where feasible, providing expert and impartial information, advice and guidance, either internally or externally;
  • valuing and encouraging the positive role that trade unions can play in helping to resolve workplace disputes (in workplaces where there are recognised trade unions);
  • considering how to encourage greater use of information, advice and guidance by ensuring it is actually followed. This could involve framing information, advice and guidance in such a way as to be influential in affecting behaviour. It could also include accurate information about the financial
    outcomes of and length of time spent on an employment tribunal case, and the advantages of seeking alternative ways of resolving a dispute, possibly involving testimonials or case studies.