Anyone who has been through an employment dispute, or who has supported a whanau member or friend through one, will know how deeply stressful and hurtful it can be.

As a society we tend to define ourselves by reference to our job or profession and our self esteem and happiness is often bound up with whether we feel valued and appreciated at work.

Given how important employment is to us – for both financial and emotional reasons – it is surprising how bad we can be at dealing with employment issues.

In this regard many employers have a very one dimensional approach to the resolution of employment grievances and employee complaints. An investigation is launched and one or other of the parties is vindicated, whilst the other often becomes a pariah.

Then if an employee dares to raise a grievance or dispute against their employer, the situation often ends in mediation and a negotiated exit. The employee loses their job, their livelihood, their self-esteem, their work community, their purpose…

Why is the default option in an employment dispute that the difficult employee has to go?

First lets start by defining what we mean by “difficult”. Employers say they want thinkers and diversity of thought and opinion, but often squash those who do challenge and question.

Employment disputes often arise out of interpersonal conflict and people having different styles and understandings. Most people do not deliberately set out to cause trouble or create issues. Their approach and world view is borne out of their life experience and personality traits.

If employers can approach employment issues from the perspective of putting themselves in the shoes of the employee and trying to understand why they may be responding in the way they are – instead of focussing on the impact on themselves – they may start to see things differently.

And in cases of interpersonal conflict, how do we get the people concerned together in a safe environment and to encourage them to consider the other’s perspective and how to work with that?

The current model of dispute resolution, whereby the parties file a personal grievance and then attend an MBIE facilitated mediation, does not tend to lend itself to nurturing ongoing constructive employment relationships. The process often involves the parties talking through lawyers and is based on legal arguments about who is right and who is wrong.

This is not necessarily the fault of the process itself, and in fact MBIE mediators do an excellent job in facilitating discussions and outcomes.

But the problem comes back to the one dimensional view many employers have of employment disputes and our societal intolerance of people who do challenge, or think or behave differently.

So I challenge employers to put themselves in the shoes of their employees. Imagine that the “difficult” employee is your friend or whanau member. Consider how you would like them to be treated and what alternative options there are for resolving disputes, before shunting the employee towards the exit lounge.

There are compelling reasons for considering a different approach to this issue. The most significant is that we are dealing with people and their emotional well being.

This is not to say that employment relationships should never be ended – in some cases this is appropriate and necessary. But it need not be the default position in a conflict situation and where it does occur it should be managed in a respectful and compassionate way.

Manaaki is about treating someone in a way that enhances their mana and also your own – this should be an objective of any employment process, whatever the outcome.