When left unchecked, workplace conflict is costly—to the tune of $359 billion, according to one study. Employee disputes have the potential to interrupt operations, decrease productivity, and damage employee morale—all of which affect an organization's bottom line.
Business leadership and human resource management play key roles in making sure this doesn’t happen. These supervisors are the ones in charge of implementing and enforcing a company’s conflict resolution strategies, as well as mediating workplace disputes when necessary.
If you aspire to be a leader in your organization or are already in the process of becoming one, putting out the fires and avoiding conflict between feuding employees will likely fall to you. In fact, a study by the American Management Association (AMA) found that managers spend 24% of their time resolving conflict. It’s no easy task, but with the right tools and education, you’ll be able to handle it head on.
Follow this guide for eight tips to help you manage employee conflict at work.
To catch conflict early, managers should create an environment of open communication so employees feel comfortable coming to leadership with their concerns. One way you can facilitate this is by implementing an open-door policy. This policy should encourage employees to come to management about any matter of importance without fear of repercussion. It involves active listening, asking questions, and utilizing teamwork. With this in place, employees will be more likely to reach out when there’s an issue, which can help to prevent conflicts or keep them from escalating further.
When resolving workplace conflict, it’s important to understand the nature and root cause of the conflict. Is it a matter of miscommunication, misinterpreted details, mismatched personalities, or competition among employees? Or is it something more serious like harassment or discrimination? If it’s the latter, that’s an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issue, and your company should already have policies and procedures in place to address it. If not, that should be an immediate priority.
Workplace conflict can happen for any number of reasons, and honestly conflict is inevitable. It’s important to get to the root of the issue and determine the level of severity so you can decide how best to address it and prevent it from becoming an ongoing problem.
It can be tempting to step in whenever there’s office drama to resolve conflict, but there will be instances when it’s best to let employees work out conflicts on their own. After all, the last thing you want is to feel like you’re micromanaging every office squabble. Letting them work together to resolve conflict can help everyone involved.
When you see employees engaging in things like friendly disagreements or light political banter, remember to observe and assess. If the disagreements don’t escalate, these situations can be opportunities for employees to find common ground or engage in constructive conversations. Sometimes stepping in too early can cause the situation to escalate because employees may have considered it a nonissue. However, if you think the conflict might escalate or rise to the level of making anyone uncomfortable, it’s time to take action.
As mentioned, some workplace conflict can (and should) be solved between the employees involved. Disputes are bound to happen, but it’s your job to observe and decide whether you should take action.
So how do you know when it’s time to step in?
Here are some situations when action is necessary:
- If friendly banter escalates to bullying
- When language becomes explicit, threatening, or aggressive
- If there are allegations of discrimination or harassment
- When conflict disrupts team productivity or threatens team morale
- If a teasing conversation becomes insulting or disrespectful
Of course, you should always look into any staff complaints that are brought to your attention. Make sure your employees feel seen and heard, no matter the severity of the situation.
It’s important to let everyone involved in the conflict present their side of the story without interruption. Your role is to actively listen, remain neutral, and focus on each person’s account. The goal here is for employees to truly listen to one another so they’ll have a deeper understanding of where the opposing side is coming from. Oftentimes, employees will be more inclined to come to a peaceful resolution once they feel acknowledged and heard. You can keep other employees updated on situations when you work to listen carefully as you resolve conflict.
When you’re dealing with workplace conflict, you want to make sure you keep track of all conversations, disciplinary meetings, etc. Be sure to include the facts from any employee-related incident, as well as the resolution each party agreed to. This will help you monitor behavior over time and identify employees who could be toxic to your work environment. It’s also important to record incidents in case any employee should try to take you to court.
Although it might seem like common sense, your employee handbook should be the first point of reference when dealing with office conflict. This handbook should serve as a guide to help you navigate disputes and what disciplinary steps to take, if needed. The policies within your handbook need to set clear standards as to what qualifies as unacceptable workplace behavior. They should leave little room for interpretation to ensure there’s zero confusion as to what’s expected.
As a leader in your organization, it’s critical that your employees are aware of company policies and understand that they’re accountable for their actions and held to the same standards as everyone on the team, regardless of their title or position. Employees should be well aware that if guidelines aren’t met, disciplinary action will be taken.
As a leader, your role in solving workplace conflict is to help employees clarify their needs and guide them to a fair solution that both sides will accept. When disputes arise, be sure to address them right away; however, don’t rush when it comes to working out a resolution.
When conflict arises in the workplace, consider following these steps:
- Understand the conflict. Encourage an open discussion between employees involved in the dispute. Have both parties state their interests and what they care about.
- Find common ground. Oftentimes, once employees have hashed out their issues, they realize they’re actually working toward the same goal—they just have differing opinions on how to reach it. Once you’ve helped them identify the common objective, it’s much easier to work toward a solution.
- Brainstorm solutions. Gather multiple ideas for resolving the conflict and talk over all potential options in a positive way. Remember, no idea is a bad idea. Discuss the pros and cons of each solution—while looking for win-win scenarios where both parties can agree.
- Agree on a plan of action. After you’ve outlined possible solutions, give the employees a chance to come to an agreement on the best way to move forward. If they can’t do this, guide them toward an option that they both can commit to.
- Follow up. After coming to a resolution, it may be helpful to follow up with the employees involved after a few days or weeks to make sure there are no additional issues. If adjustments or changes need to be made, they should be implemented quickly.
While it’s best that workplace disputes stay between management and the employees involved, there are certain situations (i.e., conflict between an employee and management) when human resources should step in. Here are some scenarios that should involve human resources:
- Staff are threatening to quit over the conflict.
- Conflicts are affecting employee morale.
- Disagreements are getting personal or disrespectful.
- Disputes are interrupting the flow of work or threatening the company’s success.
Outside help must also be considered when potential legal issues are involved. Some situations when help from a mediator, arbitrator, or attorney might be necessary include:
- Allegations of harassment or discrimination
- Conflicts become abusive or threatening
- If HR doesn’t have the resources to assist with conflict resolution
- When the dispute becomes a repeated pattern
- If multiple employees are involved the environment becomes toxic
Dealing with conflict resolution at work is one of the most challenging responsibilities that comes with being a manager or human resources professional. By taking the right measures to resolve disputes, you’ll play an important role in steering your company toward lasting success.