Preventing relationship problems

The best way to prevent employment relationship problems is to stop issues before they start.

Employment agreements must contain a simple, plain language explanation of how to resolve employment relationship problems. These should be written clearly, so that everyone knows what steps they need to follow if they think there is a problem.

It is important that everyone reads the employment agreement and any relevant policies whenever there is an employment problem and follow any process that are set down in these.

The Employment agreement builder (external link) can help employers put together a draft employment agreement that includes clauses to deal with employment problems.

Stop issues before they start

The best way to deal with any employment problems is to avoid these happening in the first place.

Some simple practices can help make relationships smoother and prevent problems:

  • Take time to communicate clearly. Poor communication often causes disputes and misunderstandings.
  • Raising concerns when they first come up can help stop them becoming bigger and harder to resolve.
  • Make sure workplace policies, practices and/or work rules are well communicated and easy to understand.
  • Put in place and use effective systems and processes for setting performance expectations, having regular performance conversations, staff updates about what is going on and for dealing with such things as change and managing performance issues.
  • Put in place processes to address and investigate complaints that employees might raise, such as complaints of bullying, discrimination, or sexual harassment.
  • Promote a culture where everyone shares the responsibility for preventing and clearing up confusion or mistakes. For example, if an employee believes they are being overpaid, the employee should raise the potential error.
  • Employees and employers should keep themselves well informed about their employment rights and responsibilities.

It is a good idea for both parties to record important conversations in writing. The written record does not need to be complex, but it should be dated, accurate and stored carefully.

If a problem does happen then dealing with it quickly using the policy and processes in place, should help to stop the problem getting bigger.

Recognise an issue early

Recognising an issue early and identifying what the underlying problem is will make it easier to resolve.

An employment issue includes anything that harms or that may harm the employment relationship. There can be many employment relationships, for example between:

  • employer and employee
  • employees
  • manager and employee
  • a union and its members
  • a union and an employer
  • different unions covering employees in the same workplace.

Examples of problems from an employee’s perspective can include allegations of:

  • disputes over holidays or pay (including deductions from pay)
  • not following health and safety rules and policies
  • discrimination, bullying or harassment
  • disagreement about whether a management action was reasonable
  • misunderstood or poorly managed performance issues, disciplinary processes, dismissals, change processes and redundancies, and applications for flexible work arrangements
  • disagreement about the meaning of a term in an employment agreement or whether it is being implemented correctly.

Examples of problems from an employer’s perspective include allegations of:

  • lateness and absenteeism
  • not following health and safety rules and policies
  • not following workplace policies and rules
  • misconduct (unacceptable behaviour)
  • conflict between employees
  • performance issues
  • long-term illnesses
  • incompatibility.

Some of these problems may be the basis of personal grievances, which require specific treatment under the Employment Relations Act 2000.

Where more than one person has the same issue

Sometimes a number of staff may have the same problem. If so, it can help to deal with the problems collectively and to look for a solution that works for everyone. Where the employees are union members, their union can play an important part in representing their interests.

Identify the problem

First, think through the problem and gather all relevant information. It is worth spending some time at this stage trying to identify the underlying cause in order to see how the problem might be resolved.

Collecting the information is the first step towards resolving the issue. Be honest. Missing out important facts or changing the facts can make the problem worse.

The kinds of questions you might need to ask are:

  • What are the details of the employment agreement, the workplace policies, work rules, job description or custom and practice?
  • When and how did the problem arise?
  • Does the problem involve one employee or a group of employees?
  • Has anyone else had this issue, what was done to resolve their issue?
  • Have you talked to the person or people involved about the problem?
  • Have any actions been taken already? Did that help or not?

Sometimes it’s a good idea to talk through a problem with another manager or a trusted friend to clarify whether a problem exists and what the issues might be. The cause of a problem may not be obvious. Remember to take care to respect the privacy of others and to protect confidential information when you talk through a problem.

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