Workplace Conflict and the EU Women on Boards Directive

Posted on: September 11th, 2023

Workplace conflict can often be triggered when people are unhappy with recruitment decisions. Unsuccessful candidates for a new job or promotion might argue that there was favouritism in the decision of whom to appoint; some candidates may feel that they were not given an equal opportunity in the process, or others may question the suitability or competence of the new appointee to even do the job.

In our experience, conflict arises in the ways that people express their annoyance at the appointment that they don’t agree with. Workers will sometimes withdraw full co-operation with the new appointee, making their new job very difficult; they might fail to report to them properly, leave them out of important communications, or cut them out altogether by going over their head to the next management level. It has also happened that the new appointee themselves fails to communicate well, is new to managing people and becomes over-zealous in their expectations of others, or simply finds themselves out of their depth and struggles to ask for support.

Mediation works well in restoring communication and re-building trust in such situations, and we have worked with many disputes in EU workplaces that have arisen because of recruitment and promotion issues. So, we are curious to see how the EU’s Women on Boards Directive [1], enacted in November 2022, might have an impact in this area.

The directive requires that, within EU states, at least 40% of Non-Executive Directors (NEDs), or 33% of all directors in larger companies, must be made up of the underrepresented gender. Given that around 31.5% of board members in EU countries are women [2], and only one, Iceland, currently meets or exceeds the 40% threshold, this means increasing the appointment of women on boards right across the EU.        

The directive stresses that ‘Suitability, competence, and professional performance, not gender’ should drive decisions of whom to appoint, meaning that only when two candidates are of equal suitability should a decision be made to appoint on the basis of gender. This is a great step forwards for gender equality of course, but how might this be perceived by others who are turned down for roles? Might there be allegations that gender trumps ability in appointment decisions: ‘They only got the job because they are female’, and how might people act out their dissatisfaction at an appointment decision that they are unhappy about?

As always when managing workplace conflict, communicating well about the reasons why appointment decisions are made, intervening quickly if conflict begins to develop, and ensuring that people all understand one another’s differing perspectives, are all key elements to ensuring that conflict does not get out of hand.

Mediation continues to be a great tool for mending spoiled relationships when communication does break down, but anticipating and preventing the need for conflict resolution, and getting in before people start acting out their dissatisfaction, is always the most effective approach.    




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