A special welcome if you are receiving this missive for the first time!

Recently, I received a telephone call. When my colleague told me who the call was from, prior to me taking the call, I thought, “I recognise her name”.

Indeed I did. It was a call from a person who had had a high profile fall out with her boss and colleagues. The story was in the media for months, prior to a Tribunal hearing which she lost. You would recognise her name too.

The reason she called was because she was considering training to become a mediator. She proceeded to ask me lots of questions about mediation and how it worked. I did my best to answer. I then asked what had prompted her to want to train to be a mediator.

She told me the story of her long running dispute with her former employer and how the years of fighting had made her tired and unwell. On top of this, her reputation was in tatters. The phone went silent before she told me of her regret of this chapter of her life. Tears started to flow – hers not mine, although it was difficult not to join her. Throughout the call which lasted around 45 minutes, I found it difficult to believe whom I was talking with. The trigger to the dispute, in her mind, was the personality and character of her boss. Her costs to go to Tribunal were just short of six figures.

I read a paper recently which outlined a series of psychological processes in how people behave during conflicts and disputes at work. The caller’s situation reminded me of ‘attribution bias’. This is where individuals attribute an event to the personality or character of the individual who caused the event, rather than external circumstances, which can in turn cause an angry response.

Another term that is used to describe behaviour that prompts the escalation of conflict, sometimes resulting in an Employment Tribunal is ‘loss aversion’. This is where individuals faced with a sure loss; gamble, even if the loss from the gamble is larger. We have seen much of this over the last year or so where cases going to an Employment Tribunal in England and Wales have increased by 56%, reaching nearly 250,000 per year. This has been partly due to the tougher economic circumstances and individuals feeling that there is nothing to lose by going to a Tribunal, as they are not sure when they will be able to secure their next job and want to pursue the opportunity for additional compensation.

The caller said that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Feelings such as anger, fear, shame, embarrassment and jealousy are normally present during any form of dispute. If these are not addressed during a dispute resolution process, the problem is unlikely to go away. It is one of the reasons why a number of you as HR professionals and line managers still have ongoing issues when a grievance process has supposedly been put to bed. The average amount of time spent on dealing with conflict is around one day each week!

As for the caller, she has set out on a new path, but has said that one day she would like to seek closure with her nemesis (otherwise referred to as her former boss).

To read more about understanding the behaviour and decision making of employees in conflicts and disputes at work, take a look at the BIS Employment Relations Research Series No.119. Call me an anorak if you like, but it is a fascinating read!