Help me understand a kind of conflict resolution
April 16, 2017 3:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm working with someone who insists that conflicts be worked out directly between parties, without being escalated to the next level. Please help me understand this.

I'm receiving services from a contracted company. The owner insists that any concerns be worked out between me and the employee. And that any conflicts between me and the owner be worked out entirely, without being escalated to the government department. To me, the insistence that I have to work things out with the employee, without involving the owner-manager, feels like disengagement and offloading. Apparently, I should almost never have to bring up any concern with the owner-manager. And the insistence that I *must* resolve any challenges between me and the owner-manager without going to the government funder feels very threatening and non-transparent.

From further discussion with the owner-manager, it sounds like they see this as a commitment to resolve things and to keep the government from deciding to bail on us or take decisions away from us. To me, it feels like, when I'm unsure about whether I'm receiving services as the government funder intended (and as I need), that I'm supposed to keep this as a secret and that I'm under threat from the contracted company, which could decide to bail on me if I'm too difficult. The owner-manager was really angry and hurt that I recently went to the government funder when a conflict kept not getting resolved and I'd asked about some things 10 times.

I come from the world of startups and tech firms. I feel like maybe part of this is a big difference in workplace cultures and approaches to project management. I'm receiving health care services, but our project is very much a start up service / pilot project. So, even though I'm receiving this service and I'm the end user client, I'm kinda getting to help direct some really cool innovation in health care services. As I really want to bring change and I really need these health services, I'm invested in this beyond my own benefit. But, at the same time, I really don't understand a lot of this model. Sometimes, the owner-manager is just seething with anger at me, too, if I've gone to the funder, so that throws me off. I don't see why I have to do all this alone. Neither of them will tell me exactly what services I'm supposed to be receiving (in terms of allocations), so then I don't even know how I'm supposed to know who's telling me the truth. The government funder keeps telling me things are covered and the owner-manager then tells me that's baloney and that they are expecting the owner-manager to wave a magic wand. Also, I do know the owner-manager has eaten some huge costs on this project, although this benefited the government funder and not so much me, and it probably really stung. The owner-manager is also one of the employees of their own firm and it seems to me kind of a conflict that I have to work out stuff with them, when it is in their interest to make decisions that benefit their firm and not just the end user client (me).

So is this sort of approach a common thing? I'm used to much more open communication between levels of a company and I'm not used to having to deal with a funder -- normally you would just go higher on the ladder and, with this, when I do that, I have to go to the funder. And, usually, where I live, these sorts of services are all held within the government health care system, where there are union protections and so many different layers that accountability is more highly prescribed. But this sort of innovation that we need does need to be with the sort of arrangement we have here and I am very committed to making sure things work.
posted by shockpoppet to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can't make sense of the four paragraphs of background information you provided, so I'm just going to address the fundamental question you asked up front:

I'm working with someone who insists that conflicts be worked out directly between parties, without being escalated to the next level. Please help me understand this.

As a manager, I don't want to solve interpersonal conflicts for one of my employees. That's not an attitude issue or an "I'm too senior for this" issue. It's a recognition that person-to-person conflicts are never really "solved" when someone senior intervenes. They might get covered up, they might become less public, but they don't go away. They only get resolved when the people involved decide to resolve them.

So I won't get involved, unless it's something egregious: Illegal activity, harassment, discrimination, etc. I want you to work through it. I'll coach you, I'll help you try and figure out what's going through the other person's head, I'll help you write out your arguments and talking points, I'll help you think through the issues and ramifications of taking different approaches. But I won't solve your problems for you. You need to work them out yourself.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 4:01 PM on April 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: That makes sense to me from an interpersonal conflict point of view. But if it has to do with whether the employee has the requisite skills/training/experience or the needed approach or if they keep showing up late or not doing what they've been repeatedly asked to do, it doesn't make sense to me.
posted by shockpoppet at 4:19 PM on April 16, 2017

I confess I don't 100% understand the situation you've described here either, but it sounds like it's very possible that the owner of the company is just not doing a good job. There might not be a secret here, they might just not be good at running a business, and/or deliberately cutting corners in hiring and training. And of course someone who is doing a bad job of providing the service they're contracted to provide isn't going to want you to go over their head to the funder. Or the industry standard for the service may be a lot lower than what you're expecting and lateness, etc. are par for the course - not saying that's what you deserve, just that that may be the case.

Maybe you're just receiving bad service.
posted by mskyle at 4:46 PM on April 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

If I'm reading this right, you're the one who's supposed to be receiving the service; the service you're receiving is inadequate; and the provider who's doing this inadequate job is insistent that you not complain about them to the entity that has engaged them? Is that correct? If that's right, it's not mysterious. Of course they'd prefer to have no complaints lodged against them, no matter how crummy a job they're doing.

Accountability is one of the many ways that startup culture is different from big-government-contractor culture.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:10 PM on April 16, 2017 [12 favorites]

I'm also having trouble making sense of this background information.

Are the services purely work delivery, or is this a type of staffing service? If it's staffing, you could be running the risk of co-employment which can have legal ramifications.

When in doubt, I would start by consulting your master contract to see what is says as far as communication and/or risk mitigation is concerned. If it says nothing about this, I would recommend putting together a work plan that outlines how your company is to engage with this vendor - get granular. Then, review it with the vendor and edit together, make sure it references the master contract to tie the two together. Now you have negotiated operational terms for the relationship.

Disclaimer: IANAL, but I do work extensively in vendor management on behalf of my company.

A lot of times, vendor contracts allude to operational workflows but otherwise skirt around them. This work plan may seen excessive, but it will CYA later and your vendor won't be able to say that they were never told about these expectations and/or they were never made clear. I'd even throw in performance measurements.
posted by floweredfish at 5:56 PM on April 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

The way I'm reading it, the OP is a health care client participating in a pilot project with a nonprofit that is receiving funding from the government. Sometimes there are problems with the health care OP is receiving, but the executive director of the nonprofit wants the OP to try to work it out with front line providers and doesn't want issues escalated up the chain of command even if the front line staff aren't doing a good job of resolving the issues.

The executive director also doesn't want the OP to go to the government funder ultimately responsible for the whole program if OP doesn't receive satisfaction about their care through the pilot project.

If I'm reading that correctly, then no, OP, that's not quite normal. You should be able to at least speak to the front line worker's supervisor. I do think that communicating with the government funder would be unusual unless the complaints you had were very serious and not being addressed by the nonprofit delivering the healthcare. But if that is in fact the case, then it might well be appropriate for you to do so.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:17 PM on April 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

I realize on re-reading that the organization proving the health care services may not be a non-profit but a private, for-profit company. But my answer still stands--just substitute "company" for "non-profit" and "CEO" for "executive director."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:21 PM on April 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

"So, even though I'm receiving this service and I'm the end user client, I'm kinda getting to help direct some really cool innovation in health care services. As I really want to bring change and I really need these health services, I'm invested in this beyond my own benefit."

I'm not sure I understand your question or the situation either, but I think this is in some ways an inherent conflict of interest.

"I don't see why I have to do all this alone. Neither of them will tell me exactly what services I'm supposed to be receiving (in terms of allocations), so then I don't even know how I'm supposed to know who's telling me the truth. The government funder keeps telling me things are covered and the owner-manager then tells me that's baloney and that they are expecting the owner-manager to wave a magic wand."

I think if you're not receiving services from a provider that your funder (it is you funded? Or is it the program? Like if there were another provider could you take your 'dollars' there?) says you should be receiving, then I think that is a reason to go to the funder.

But I also think that you should consider finding another healthcare provider to meet your needs.

When I have been involved in pilot projects in non-profit, the "risk" part of the pilot (staffing, not having ordered the right materials, etc.) has not been transparent to the end user, because part of the pilot is assessing whether the actual program delivery works, not whether there were enough hours allocated per client or the conference room was available. We might survey clients or ask for their feedback, and do follow-up, but we would not tell them that we had spent too much money on XYZ so please don't complain about not actually getting the service you thought you would get.

Something doesn't seem right in the situation, so that's why I would consider moving on, in your shoes.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:37 PM on April 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

If hurdy durty girl's take is right, outside of a really terrible ethical violation, it would be quite inappropriate for you to contact the government agency. Maybe there will be an evaluation later, but for now, deal with your provider and their boss.
posted by k8t at 6:56 PM on April 16, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks. It's a small business. The owner is the direct manager of any of the front line staff and is also a front line provider of some services (but not the same as the front line staff). So the owner is saying don't escalate to the owner and, when there are issues with the owner, don't escalate to the government funder. But the government funder is telling me to tell them if I'm not getting the right services. And I wasn't, which seemed like a big ethical problem to me.

I just wanted to know if this is some sort of workplace culture thing. It reminds me of the kind of management you see in a restaurant or maybe a clothing retailer, where the boss might tell the employees to work things out. But I'm the end user (client), not an employee. And the problem is that I'm being given people who don't know what they are doing. Then, when I tell the owner this, the owner isn't necessarily working out the problem and is instead telling me to work it out with staff. (I don't know how I'm supposed to work out a safety issue posed by a lack of training. It's not my job to train staff, not to that sort of extent.)

So it seems to me that, sometimes, I have to go to the government funder and ask them to work it out. I'm going to my first level contact their, whose job it is to look after our pilot. So it's not like I went to the head of the government or something.

I just wasn't sure if this was some sort of workplace culture that I had never run into. I've been working for 30 years and I've never seen anything like this, except when I worked in restaurants.
posted by shockpoppet at 7:28 PM on April 16, 2017

I can somewhat understand the owner of the contracting firm (i.e. the ultimate manager of the front line staff) asking you to try to work things out with said front line staff FIRST. But said owner should ultimately be accountable for said front line staff.

I can kinda/sorta appreciate that the owner would want a chance to correct problems BEFORE you go to the government funder, but if they are unapproachable themselves, yes, you are ultimately ethically bound (and common sense dictates) - the government funder should ultimately be informed.

I think the owner is at best naive about your ability to resolve everything with his/her staff and at worst hoping he/she can pressure you into compliance with whatever their agenda is. It sounds like they kind of feel they're getting a bad deal from this situation. The idea that they can threaten you with pulling out is kind of rich. I don't know many small businesses like this that can be cavalier about such actions.

I'd be (a) really open with the government funder and (b) working on figuring out how you're going to keep moving forward when this company either folds or gets fired.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:41 PM on April 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

I used to be the government funder in this case and I would absolutely want to know and I would happily defund a company who threatened you like that. Tell the owner-manager to stick it up their ass, it's a free country and you can call whoever you like. If the contractor they provided you with is useless it's up to them to make that right, not you to train them.

Government contractors are unbelievable. It's like every movie villain who couldn't quite make it in evil villainry decided to set one up. Snitch early and often on those fuckers.
posted by fshgrl at 8:12 PM on April 16, 2017 [15 favorites]

Like, the all time best govt contractor story is when one guy who owned the company came and took all the onsite staff out to lunch. Not too unusual. At the time those folks probably got paid 50-60% of what full time staff got paid and the contracting company kept the rest. For doing basically nothing. At lunch he told them that they wouldn't be getting bonuses that year as he was going through an expensive divorce, then drove away in his $85,000 car. They're all fucking crooks as far as I can tell.
posted by fshgrl at 8:21 PM on April 16, 2017

This owner doesn't want to do his job and doesn't want his company's funder to know that he isn't doing his job. This is really not a controversial point. Absent specific arrangements, it isn't your job to manage or supervise his staff. Of course it makes sense to try to deal with the problem at the lowest point on the food chain first, but if it's not solving the problem, you have every right to escalate.
posted by praemunire at 8:23 PM on April 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

One way to approach this is to get everybody to agree an escalation protocol that becomes part of the contract. The owner does not get to dictate this - this should be agreed between all parties, including the funder. If the provider does not agree to such a process and abide by its outcome they should absolutely be defunded.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:05 AM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like the front-line staff cannot meet the requirements you have of them. And perhaps they are additionally not empowered to tell you this. It may be that your expectations are unique or that they are only realizing after the fact that they don't have the resources or ability to do the things you need. You think they should either make it happen or be up front but there may be no one who can do either.

Secondly, it seems like there is some paternalism at play. By acting like this is an interpersonal issue as opposed to a work product issue, the owner is sloughing off responsibility to make things right or own up to failures. I have experienced this in the past as a woman where a male has refused to do the work I've asked of him or done it so poorly that the job might as well have remained undone, basic insubordination, and escalating to a male manager has resulted in, "uh, I don't want to get involved, this is really between the two of you." If you are a woman and the owner is a man, he may be giving you this treatment because he doesn't care whether you receive the services you feel you are entitled and he has no plans to overextend himself for your particular case. The owner could solve this (probably) by being proactive but they don't want to for whatever reason or reasons.

And of course, going to the funder could jeapordize the project entirely. So, yeah, "company culture" of crap accountability but also you might need to work backwards and see if when you started expectations were clear and whether they have the ability to meet your requests. That might be a tact to take with the frontline staff if they aren't turned against you. "Hey, this request just seems perhaps kind of too much for you guys, is this something you have the ability to deliver on or is it beyond the scope?" See what they say and document everything. If you can get them to admit that they can't do it then you could take that to the funder. But I imagine you'll be shut out whether or not the project proceeds.
posted by amanda at 8:09 AM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks. I think there is some shirking going on and that the owner gets really defensive. Unbeknownst to me, they went above and beyond in swallowing some costs (that they should have written into their contract) and I think maybe some of their frustration with that has come out, even though it wasn't my doing. With it being a pilot and everything and this sort of thing not coming up before, I don't think the company has experience with having a client hold them accountable to the government's requirements. So I think we just need to work out some stuff a bit more and I need to help them see that my concerns are serious. I asked if the owner knew that, if I raise a concern, it's been through a ton of thought already and it turns out that they are more used to people speaking off the cuff and just complaining without trying to resolve things or think of options. (This sort of thinking seriously makes me feel like I'm being treated like a 16yo clerk at the Gap or a server working a section with a table me and the other server overlooked or something, but it also sounds like both of those *are* their prior work background before going into this line of work and, in spite of 20 years in business, they only started bringing on staff more recently. :) ) So I think some of it has to do with a growing business and an owner probably using the management style they began with. But that doesn't mean they get to keep using it. Ha.
posted by shockpoppet at 12:32 PM on April 17, 2017

if I raise a concern, it's been through a ton of thought already and it turns out that they are more used to people speaking off the cuff and just complaining without trying to resolve things or think of options

On reading this, I thought of another possible reason you're getting blowback from the owner: for many social service/health providers, the role of the client is seen as passive recipient, not active participant. Because you are willing to make reference to your knowledge and experience in running a business and being a contractor, you are not conveniently playing along as a passive recipient of services. It is likely the owner does not encounter clients like you very often and this is prompting his doubling-down.

It's much easier to deliver substandard care if the recipients don't do pesky things like speak up about it and escalate if they don't receive satisfactory answers. Reading your updates where you say your government contact has told you to speak up if you're not receiving the services--I'd encourage you to do that. You will probably be speaking on behalf of not just yourself but others in the pilot program who are too intimidated or don't know that they can speak up.

I am not a government funder, but I am in charge of some satellite programs, and I am always infuriated at discovering the remote provider is cutting corners and hiding problems. I welcome it when a client blows the whistle, because it means I can actually take action early and get people the services they are entitled to.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:21 PM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks. I did end up speaking up and it's all blown up into a horrendous upset. The owner now thinks they have to divest themselves of some of the services, because of the ethical conflict they admit exists. But the government funder and I do not see that anyone else is capable of delivering the owner's specific services at the same level. We think it's just that one team member perhaps has to change and that would affect the front line staff training and so on. But I think now I've upset the owner so much that they feel like they can't work with me and have to have someone else do it for ethical reasons.
posted by shockpoppet at 9:15 AM on April 21, 2017

Oh wow, I'm sorry to hear it's taken a turn in this direction. Thank you for updating and I hope it can settle out in a way that isn't awful for you!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:44 AM on April 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

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