As a manager, you can be certain that your employees will face conflict on the job. People don’t always see eye-to-eye, personalities often differ, and sometimes a simple misunderstanding can create a rift in the workplace.
What’s not clear, however, is if—and when—you should get involved in an employee conflict.
Stepping in too early can give legs to a problem that employees may have considered a nonissue. Stepping in too late, on the other hand, can allow an issue to fester and contaminate an entire department or workplace.
“When it comes to workplace conflict, managers tend to be reactive—a lot of times because they don’t want to be the intermediary,” says HR Specialist, Seline Williams.
But Williams has found that managers need to be proactive if they want to prevent a minor employee dispute from becoming a major workplace issue.
Like a wildfire, conflict is easy to put out when it’s small but hard to contain once it’s spread throughout the business.
When should management get involved in employee conflict?
The easy answer: as soon as it starts to compromise productivity, morale, or organizational success. The challenging part: conflict doesn’t always manifest itself in a big, confrontational blowout.
In fact, it’s the subtle spill over into the day-to-day that can be the most disruptive and costly for a business. Managers can easily lose an entire week’s worth of productivity trying to resolve a single employee issue. The HR Specialists at simplicityHR regularly deal with issues of conflict in the workplace.
“It usually stems from a minor work-related disagreement,” says HR Specialist, Alleane Alley, recalling a time when shifting job roles led to confusion and tension amongst employees.
“The two employees stopped greeting each other in the morning, other employees got dragged into it, and at the end of the day the morale at the company tanked,” Alley continues. Management was aware of the ongoing tension but had hoped the employees would resolve the issue on their own.
“They were wrong,” she says. “The dispute eventually reached its breaking point at a company-wide staff meeting that made everyone very uncomfortable.”
Poorly managed conflict can also contribute to project failure, lead to high employee turnover and absentee costs, and in many cases even cause well-meaning managers to lose the respect of their team. In fact, one in four employees said conflict led to sickness or absence from work.
Read also: Coaching tips for non-confrontational managers
Tips for effectively dealing with employee conflict
Although conflict cannot be avoided, it can be handled more effectively. To help simplify the process, here are four easy tips for handling conflict to ensure your employees and business stay productive.
Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with employees
This is a preemptive measure that does two things. First, it allows management to have a strong read on what’s going on with their employees—good or bad; big or small. Secondly, and most importantly, it opens the lines of communication. Should a conflict arise, employees will feel comfortable going to management instead of letting the issue build up inside of them.
Bring employees together to identify the root cause of the conflict
If employees are experiencing conflict, consider bringing them together for a meeting right away. The goal should be to identify where the disagreement originated and to help employees develop actionable steps to resolve the issue. This doesn’t mean to solve the issue for them, but to ask what they need from you to be successful.
Reiterate the importance of working respectfully and cooperatively
Remind employees that working cooperatively and respectfully is a part of their job. Whenever possible, cite specific text and policies from your company’s employee handbook to reinforce any consequences of failing to do so. Don’t have one yet? Here’s why you need an employee handbook.
Document employee conflict, however small
Regardless of how insignificant an issue may seem at the time, it’s always wise to have good documentation. If the issue escalates, you will have a history of documented behavior and attempts to address it. Even if it’s informal (e.g. email follow-ups, internal notes), documentation can be helpful should the issue ever turn into a liability for the company down the road.
Need help handling employee issues like workplace conflict?
Though it’s best to deal with employee conflict right away and on a local level, sometimes you don’t have the proper tools or experience to deal with it effectively. That’s where simplicityHR comes in!
Our team of experts can provide your business the HR support it needs, whether it’s counseling managers on how best to approach situations, sitting in on mediation meetings as a neutral, third-party, or offering your team access to our comprehensive education services training program.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Readers should first consult their attorney, accountant or adviser before acting upon any information in this article.