Conflict Coach


Using a variety of tools, techniques and conceptual frameworks for analyzing conflict, a conflict coach works with people one-on-one to help them gain a new perspective on their conflicts and uncover new possibilities for resolution.

Learn More About Conflict Coaching with John Curtis

Duty to Investigate – “A Ticking Time Bomb”

John Curtis, .

Recently, I was retained to conduct two workplace harassment investigations related to employee complaints against senior management. Both investigations were initiated by complaints that were made to the Ministry of Labour well after the employee left the employer.

This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it should serve as wake-up call to any employers out there who may have disgruntled ex-employees. On the other, it may give heart to those who feel they were mistreated but believe there is nothing that can be done to prevent others from experiencing similar harassment.

Without disclosing any confidential information, the basic details of these two cases are instructive.

Scenario 1:

A senior management employee accused the CEO of prolonged harassment relating to allegations of unwarranted performance criticism, performance related humiliation in front of co-workers, and removal of job responsibilities amounting to a demotion. A formal written complaint was made. 

There was a mediation that apparently resolved all matters between the parties. The complainant left the employer for another job about three months after the mediation. Four weeks after voluntarily leaving for another job, the employee filed a complaint with Ontario’s Ministry of Labour. The Ministry found that the original complaint had never been investigated, contrary to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) which requires the employer to investigate all complaints. It also found that there were fresh complaints which must be investigated.

The mistake that allowed the Ministry to order that the original complaints be investigated was that the mediation had no minutes of settlement and no written withdrawal of the complaint.   

The fresh complaints were part of what the employee framed as a written “exit interview” that the employer refused to conduct. Faced with no opportunity for a meaningful exit interview, the employee simply wrote down all her grievances and emailed it to the employer who did not respond. These fresh complaints were not barred by any sort of payment accompanied by a Full and Final Release Agreement that are usually associated with the termination of a disgruntled employee. Such a Release might have included a formal withdrawal of any current or potential complaints of harassment. Whether employees and employers can contract out of OSHA requirements is another question.

In the end, the complaints were found to be without merit. I also found that withdrawal of the original complaint was implied by the successful resolution of that complaint by mediation.

The problem is that the employer was forced to pay for an expensive investigation and the associated disruption and emotional upheaval amongst affected staff members that these investigations invariably bring to a workplace regardless of how thoughtfully, gently and quickly the investigator does their work.

Lessons Learned:

If mediation is part of your harassment policy process for resolving complaints (and I believe it should be), make sure that it covers the requirement for withdrawal of the complaint if the mediation is successful.  

Typically this will be included in written Minutes of Settlement following the mediation. However, it would not hurt to have guidance on this matter in the actual policy wording related to mediation.

When difficult employees leave on their own accord, keep in mind the need for an amicable exit process. It might not always feel right to throw a retirement party, but careful thought needs to be given to how best to set a positive tone surrounding the employee’s departure. There are companies that offer this type of service and it can be worth its weight in gold.

Scenario 2:

This involved a restaurant employee who had been terminated and had been arguing with the employer about how much pay in lieu of notice to which she was entitled for several months after termination. About $1,500 was in dispute on that score. About a year after termination and four months after the last correspondence about pay in lieu of notice, the employee brought her complaint to the Ministry of Labour which promptly ordered an investigation.

The complaints of harassment and sexual harassment were serious. However, there was concern that they were being done simply as leverage in the termination pay dispute. 

While that may have been true, the complaints were found to have merit. In this case, the complaints were against a key managing partner in the business. Facing the stark conclusions of harassment and sexual harassment, the business relationship amongst the ownership group was severed and the viability of the business was seriously jeopardized – it may not recover.

There was ample evidence that many bystander employees and some business partners knew about the abuse that was going on and, rather than speaking out, they hoped it would stop on its own.

Lessons Learned:

Treat your employees as the most precious resource in your business. So-called bystanders have an important role to play in dealing with harassment and sexual harassment. Don’t be cheap when terminating employees.

The path to a “kinder and gentler” world is often not so kind and gentle.  A workplace harassment investigation is best understood as a form of adversarial process that can be a source of great stress and consternation for all involved. 

Because of the requirements on employers under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, an investigation may be unavoidable. Make sure your policy is up to date and pay careful attention to the conflict competency of your workplace culture. A conflict-incompetent culture is not just unpleasant – it is a significant “cost centre”.

Is Conflict Often Caused by Perceived Unfairness?

John Curtis, .

You are sitting on a park bench and see someone find $10. Too bad you didn’t see it first! That person asks if you want to split the money. If they offer to split it 50-50, many of us would accept, or perhaps decline because “finders’ keepers.” What if the finder suggests you split the money 90-10. That is not fair! That person wants to cheat us! Forget the fact that a 90-10 split would give you $1 you didn’t have before; forget the fact that the other person found the money. It’s not the facts that matter; it’s the perception. Conflict is often caused by perceptions of what is fair and what is not and what we perceive the other person’s intentions are. In the workplace, managers and supervisors may be causing conflict and not even be aware of it.

Why Investing In Employees Can Also Assist In Conflict Coaching

John Curtis, .

In an organizational hierarchy every employee tends to rise or get promoted to his or her level of incompetence.” Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.

Mr. Peter describes what many of us have seen – or even experienced – in the workplace. People are promoted until they can no longer do the job they are assigned, and there they remain. In my conflict coaching practice I frequently work with people facing this type of challenge. I have a more optimistic outlook than Mr. Peter.  The outcomes for these people need not be so negative as becoming stuck in a position for which one is unsuited.

4 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Conflict Coach

John Curtis, .

There are different styles of conflict coaches and different styles of conflict coaching. When choosing a conflict coach, you have to be sure their style and approach melds with your needs.

The thing about finding a conflict coach is that you cannot be sure it’s the right fit until you give someone a try. When you have an issue and think you would benefit from coaching, it requires a bit of a shot in the dark. That’s not to say you are completely blind: you will have a sense of this person’s experience, credentials, and background even before meeting with him/her, thanks to the internet. Before you hire a conflict coach you should speak to the living, breathing person and ask him or her these 4 important questions:

When is Conflict Coaching Valuable?

John Curtis, .

Sometimes it seems like we could use conflict coaching everyday and twice on Mondays! But the point of conflict coaching is to help you develop the skills to handle disputes and disagreements on your own, regardless of the specific circumstances. Having the know-how and support to get you headed in the right direction can make a tremendous difference. There are, though, situations in which coaching is invaluable regardless of how skilled one is… These include:

What is Conflict Coaching?

John Curtis, .

The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author.

Shuttle Diplomacy: Does It Work?

John Curtis, .

Tim White was a high-ranking gang member from the South Side of Chicago. He sold drugs, spent years in and out of jail, and lived a violent life. In prison, he “found” religion and has since become a Baptist minister. One day, he was talking on the corner with the leaders of two rival gangs, trying to convince them to stop a gang war from erupting. On the street, other gang members came over, guns came out, and finally White convinced everyone to leave before the cops showed up.

Discover the Different Styles of Conflict Coaching

John Curtis, .

What’s the purpose of conflict coaching? To resolve the conflict! But to do that, you need to be thrown-off balance. The status quo isn’t working for you; business as usual simply perpetuates the cycle of conflict you’re experiencing. You need to break out of that, and this is what a conflict coach can help you do. It is, and has to be, uncomfortable. But just how uncomfortable? Some coaches seem to model their practices on a Hollywood version of a drill sergeant, while others offer a more moderate approach. Which is the more effective style?

How to Convince Your Manager that You Need a Conflict Coach

John Curtis, .

“Hey, Manager. I’m having a conflict with John and Sue. Can’t work it out. Let’s get a conflict coach in here.”

If you can say this openly and directly to your manager/supervisor, you’re lucky! Many people are reluctant to admit they cannot resolve a dispute that a situation has escalated past a manageable point or even that they have a conflict at all. You may have come to the conclusion that a conflict coach will help – but how do you ensure your manager comes to the same conclusion?

When you are asking for a conflict coach, you have to be able to phrase it in the right terms to the decision-maker(s). You have to make it sound like it’s for their benefit, which is certainly not a stretch in this case. What’s in it for them?

In a word, money. Conflict impacts the bottom line by:

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