HUMAN Resource departments have undergone something of an identity crisis during the past 10 years in Australia.

For many businesses the HR department is now expected to undertake a range of activities, from hiring staff and training to complex issues like managing conflict in the workplace.

Many businesses have recognised that people are an asset to the company only when they are achieving at a peak level.

And personal issues both at home and in the workplace will have a negative effect on performance if left unchecked.

In response to this, a number of government departments and businesses are looking to external contractors to deal with sensitive issues, such as mediation and conflict resolution.

Anglicare Working Relationships coordinator Sheena Edwards said businesses needed to be more pro-active in relation to issues in the workplace.

“One workplace I’ve been involved with has now created a wellness coordinator,” she said.

“It’s really about pro-activity, whether you can nip a problem in the bud rather than just putting it under the table.

“I think what we recognise is that it doesn’t go away. It needs to be dealt with.”

Working Relationships has developed programs specifically for management and middle management to discuss issues, including staff and stress.

Traditionally the role of management has included dealing with staff issues, but the workplace has changed and support is needed at a management level to provide people with the tools to address issues.

“The advantage of an external presence is, hopefully, that it evens out some of the power differentials,” Ms Edwards said.

“It’s quite exciting to see people come out of this and resolve something.”

Neither mediation nor conflict resolution is a quick fix and there has to be a real commitment on behalf of the people involved to resolve the conflict.

And of course there’s a cost to the company. Mediation can cost thousands of dollars, although most simple issues can be worked though in a few sessions.

“What I would be always looking for is to try not to have a mediation or conflict resolution until people are ready to and they are really looking for a result,” Ms Edwards said.

“And it’s not an expensive investment to get a happy workplace.

“It saves managers and middle managers from burning out and having heart attacks.

“When you see what they’re (businesses) paying in salaries it’s very cost effective.

“In the past there has been something there, but there hasn’t been a lot for managers or middle managers, and they’ve been doing it on their own.”

Relationships Australia provides a similar range of services to the business community by applying the traditional family mediation tools to problems in the workplace.

It’s a recognition that employers now have a responsibility to their employees that extends well beyond a pay packet at the end of each week.

If management can’t effectively deal with the human issues that crop up at work, an unhappy employee often will take what appears to be the only course of action and resign.

“I think it’s important to have an understanding of mediation and conflict resolution in business,” Relationships Australia CEO Gordon Melsom said.

“A mediator has to be independent and also seen as independent.

“If you have two staff in conflict it’s very difficult for someone from the HR department to get involved because they’re from the same organisation. These services are not tailor made for large corporations.”

“In many cases small businesses, especially family businesses, need help separating emotional issues from business decisions.

“We deal with everything from family businesses where there might be an issue over income distribution or a succession plan through to working with quite large government departments,” Mr Melsom said.

“Often it’s just two people who just can’t see eye to eye.

Businesses that have rejected a hierarchical management structure find the blurred boundary can be a flashpoint for power struggles.

However, many corporations still prefer to rely on internal departments to deal with conflict in the workplace, including BankWest.

BankWest chief people officer Bruce McCowan said the bank had worked hard to create a structure where his role as chief people officer has the same status and standing as the chief financial officer or the chief operations officer.

It’s a shift in thinking where managing people is recognised as vital to a strong business.

“Our area looks at people strategies across business that maximise or enable business performance,” Mr McCowan said.

“We don’t do a lot of conflict resolution or mediation.

“The only mediation is done by the FSU (Financial Services Union) or individuals bring in their solicitor.

“In almost all instances it’s dealt with internally.

“The paradigm which we challenge is (that) people are your greatest asset.

“We don’t believe this. We believe people only become an asset when they are achieving at their best.

“HR has become far more strategic in terms of what we do to maximise our investment in people in the organisation.”

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