4 Basic Tips to Avoid Workplace Disputes and Allegations of Unethical Conduct

In this post, Staff Lawyer discusses four basic tips to help you avoid becoming embroiled in a workplace dispute.  This post is for staff members, consultants and interns of international organizations, but this advice is especially important for supervisors.

TIP #1: Communicate and Explain Your Decisions

A failure to communicate is at the core of many employment grievances in international organizations. A lack of effective communication breeds uncertainty, misunderstandings and ill-feelings in other staff members, especially those in junior positions in the organization.

For this reason, international civil servants in leadership and decision-making roles, such as managers and administrative personnel, must communicate and explain their decisions.  The International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) Standards of Conduct states “It is […] incumbent on managers and supervisors to communicate effectively with their staff and share information with them.” It further states that “international civil servants have a reciprocal responsibility to provide all pertinent facts and information to their supervisors” (paragraph 17)

A good way to avoid disputes is to communicate decisions openly to those staff members who will be impacted by them. In doing so, explain transparently why a decision has been taken and clarify aspects of the decision that are important for people to understand.  Sometimes managers fail to do this or mistakenly leave it to the staff member to “read between the lines” to understand why a decision has been taken. This is a mistake.  It will lead to a misinterpretation, decrease colleagues’ trust and leave them to seek answers elsewhere.   

Thus, if you are a decision-maker in an international organization, it is in everyone’s best interest to communicate and explain to impacted colleagues the reasons and consequences of decisions that affect them.

TIP #2:  “Save” Those Angry Emails, Don’t “Send” Them

It is good to be careful when sending emails and text messages in the heat of the moment, especially when you are upset. Even though you can respond immediately, this does not mean you should!

The ICSC Standards of Conduct state “Managers and supervisors are in positions of leadership and it is their responsibility to ensure a harmonious workplace based on mutual respect; they should be open to all views and opinions and make sure that the merits of staff are properly recognized.” (Para 15). This means that aside from acting ethically, staff members and particularly those in positions of leadership are becoming increasingly judged based on whether they treat others with civility.

As Florida Attorney Brian Tannebaum has said, e-mail is an abbreviation of “electronic mail” but it could also stand for “evidence mail” or “emotional mail”.  When I was a lawyer defending international organizations, many cases were based only on lengthy and inappropriate email exchanges between colleagues. In fact, this type of documentation can be excellent evidence in courts of law such as the ILO Administrative Tribunal.

It is convenient for managers to establish group chats on platforms such as Whatsapp to communicate with their teams. Managers who do so need to ensure that this environment is healthy and respectful. This means that they should be vigilant not only about the content of their own messages, but the messages of other colleagues in the group.

The next time that you are upset at the office and want to fire off an angry email to your colleague, take a deep breath and hit “save”.  Take a walk, work on something else, settle down and return to this message after some hours.  When you re-read it, you will tone down the message and these changes will be for the better.  This is because you will be considering the consequences of your actions and your good reputation, instead of only your emotions.

TIP #3: Avoid Anti-Social Media

Like everyone else, you have a right to have a social media presence, whether it is on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or elsewhere. The line between private and public communication is blurry when social media is involved. As a result, there is confusion over what is acceptable behavior on social media, especially when posts are made outside of work hours and on personal accounts. 

As a first step to avoid social media pitfalls, you should review your organization’s communications or social media policy. Most organizations have a detailed policy, for example the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) Toolkit for IFAD Communications has devoted several pages to the use of social media. A general principle is that an international organization expects staff members to try to promote a positive image of the international civil service at all times, not to air personal grievances or criticize the organization publicly and to respond with tact and restraint if subjected to criticism. (ICSC Standards, paragraphs 35 – 37)

The United Nations has Guidelines that state:

“As international civil servants, staff have a duty to be and appear to be both independent and impartial. As such, staff must ensure that the expression of their personal views and convictions on social media does not adversely affect their official duties, reflect poorly on their status as international civil servants or call into question their duty of loyalty, impartiality and responsibility to the Organization.”

The United Nations has also taken the view that even if you add a disclaimer to your social media accounts or make your accounts private, you nevertheless must ensure what your posts are consistent with the impartiality and conduct required of an international civil servant.

As practical advice, be careful when commenting about the organization on social media. If you make comments that the organization considers are in contradiction with its core values, you may open yourself up to a conflict with your employer.  On the flip side, if someone defames you publicly due to your role at an international agency, you should consider bringing this to your employer's attention. The organization should take steps to protect your good reputation.

Lastly, there may be certain instances where speech critical of your employer is subject to whistleblower protection.

TIP #4: Seek an expert’s advice

The final tip is when in doubt seek an expert’s advice.  It is not your job to know everything about workplace grievances, the nuances of HR procedures, or the ins and outs of mediation. It is not a weakness to seek help; on the contrary, it is a sign of professionalism to know when a question is outside your competence. The most seasoned managers I worked with knew when it was time to seek an expert’s advice.

There may also be times when help must be found from outside the organization.  For this reason, I highly recommend that all staff members and consultants take out legal expenses insurance that covers employment law matters in their international organization.

Legal expenses insurance covers costs incurred in case of an unforeseen legal matter. Such costs normally include a lawyer’s fees and related legal expenses. Having legal expenses insurance covering employment law matters at the workplace offers you the same peace of mind as other forms of insurance (health, dental, property, life and travel insurance). If something unexpected happens, you can get help without making large financial sacrifices. 

It makes good sense (and good career sense) to invest in protecting your career. For individuals working in Switzerland, there are several companies that offer legal expenses insurance for personnel of international organizations (Fortuna, CAP and AXA-ARAG are a few examples). These policies are affordable (25 – 40 USD per month) and some are offered with no deductible and no minimum disputed sum. This means that disputes in which damages may be difficult to quantify could also be covered. 

If you need assistance, please do not hesitate to contact Staff Lawyer.

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