Viewpoint: Resolving Conflicts, Building Relationships (and Competencies)

By Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP February 14, 2019
Viewpoint: Resolving Conflicts, Building Relationships (and Competencies)

​Upon completion of my graduate degree from a respected school of labor and employment relations, I accepted a position as an HR manager at a small manufacturing company. This heavy industrial operation had 1,200 employees and three unions. The company and unions had only recently settled negotiations after a conflict-filled, three-year process. Due to the poor relationships between management and the unions, hundreds of issues and grievances remained on the table, waiting to be addressed. 

I'd had minimal experience working in a union environment. Nevertheless, my boss, the HR director, tasked me with resolving more than 250 open grievances—some more than 11 years old. I had to get up to speed quickly and begin the process of resolving these disputes.

Within my first six months on the job, our team got the open-grievance backlog down to fewer than 100 cases, with no arbitration or mediations needed to resolve them. Within my first year, our team had fewer than 50 open grievances. By the time I left the company a few years later, we had fewer than 10 open grievances left, all current. While we never achieved our goal of zero open grievances, we made significant progress in cleaning up and resolving old disputes.

How did we do it?

Looking back, I realize that the knowledge, skills and abilities we used then are the same as those that now make up the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (SHRM BoCK™). While the SHRM certification program didn't exist when I held that job, I had applied the competencies and HR expertise it defines.

'Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.'
—Max Lucado, author and preacher

Today I hold the SHRM-SCP credential. In my current role as a mediator and fact-finder, I use many components of the SHRM BoCK to resolve contract disputes in the public sector. They are necessary for any HR professional dealing with union or nonunion disputes. 

To help you address such issues head on and guide your organization through conflict resolution and relationship building to similar success, here are a few things to think about: 

  • Build trust by building relationships. The Relationship Management competency can play an important role in bridging the trust gap between management and labor, especially at the beginning of the process of grievance resolution and conflict management. Spending hours with union stewards, production supervisors and managers proved to be a successful method of working through the issues at my company. 
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Communication is one of the most important behavioral competencies in the SHRM BoCK. Understanding the importance of communicating with both labor and management, including follow-up, was a key driver in how my team resolved old and current grievances. I'm a big proponent of open communication. 
  • Research, investigate and evaluate. The issues we dealt with were complex and required extensive research, meetings and reviews. We analyzed previous grievances, labor contracts, side agreements and negotiation minutes. By utilizing skills in Critical Evaluation, I was able to do the research, investigate the issues, ask the right questions, and provide timely answers to both labor and management.
  • Understand business impacts. Before agreeing to anything in writing or verbally at the negotiation table, have a full understanding of how the grievance and resolution process will affect the business and its operations. Competency in Business Acumen, along with communication skills, are vital to relationship building and resolving open issues. 
  • Take the lead and navigate through the issues. The Leadership & Navigation competency speaks for itself. As a new member of my organization, I had no choice but to take the lead on the open grievances and hold all sides accountable for their resolution. The SHRM BoCK provides us with the knowledge, skills and abilities to guide an organization through the many issues we face as HR professionals. 


Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP, owner of Burr Consulting LLC in Elmira, N.Y., is an HR consultant, an assistant professor at Elmira College, and an on-call mediator and fact-finder for the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. He holds master's degrees in business administration and human resources and industrial relations, and a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt.



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