Helping employees manage conflict successfully can be critical to maintaining positive employee morale in the workplace. And this task falls not just upon direct managers and supervisors, but also upon the entire HR team. HR professionals need to be able to provide both employees and managers/supervisors with tools, tips, and training to be able to manage inevitable workplace conflict that arises.
HR may opt to conduct this training (if that’s something that is typical for the organization) or may want to utilize a third-party.
In general, here are some tips for employee conflict management:
- Issues need to be addressed before they escalate. Conflicts that are ignored can become bigger quickly and can get out of control.
- Whenever a complaint is brought to someone’s attention, it’s important to get the perspective of the others involved without jumping to conclusions. Sometimes a situation looks quite different once all angles are considered. The root cause may not be obvious, even after hearing about the issue.
- Employees can be encouraged to work out differences between themselves when appropriate. Managers and HR should try to know when to encourage this and when to get involved.
- When an employee has a complaint, be sure to acknowledge the problem and take it seriously and listen to the entire situation. Employees who feel dismissed are unlikely to be happy at the workplace. Even if the complaint doesn’t seem serious at first, hear them out and look into the matter or give them tips on how to proceed.
- Be sure employees know where they can turn with problems, and give options beyond their direct supervisor. They should know who they can turn to if the supervisor is unavailable or is involved in the conflict in some way.
- Once conflicts are heard and investigated, come up with potential solutions and work with all parties to determine what actions to take. No matter what path is chosen, set up a time to follow up to see how it’s working out.
- Remember that employees may not always bring issues to the attention of HR or management right away. It pays to proactively look for signs of conflict to be able to address it while it’s still manageable. Some signs include sudden changes in employee performance; unexpected requests by employees to change shifts, teams, departments, etc.; or more absences. This list is not comprehensive, it’s just meant to highlight some of the subtle signs that there may be problems just below the surface that HR or managers can look into.
- Managers should know how to set clear goals and expectations, which can help to avoid misunderstandings.
- Be sure that HR and managers treat employees fairly and consistently, especially when it comes to disciplinary issues.
- Document conflicts and what has been done to manage them. Don’t rely on memory. This can also help later with the consistency in how employees are treated, as noted above.
- As much as possible, focus on the problem objectively without placing undue blame.
- Managers’ attitudes may contribute to the situation. Sarcasm and negativity can influence employee conflict and how they manage it.
- Don’t overreact to emotional displays.
Conflict Management: Training for Employees
Besides training on conflict management, there are other related types of training that employers may consider offering. For example:
- Listening skills
- Negotiation skills to resolve conflicts
- Problem-solving skills
- Emotional intelligence
- Communication skills
- Reducing bias
- Managing stress
These things can be part of third-party training, or they can be done directly within the organization.
Employee conflict not only harms morale, it can significantly impact productivity. Employees are more likely to be underperforming and suffer burnout if they’re upset at work. As such, it’s critical to manage conflict as it arises and not let it become worse. Many things can be managed on a case-by-case basis, and many organizations also have found benefit in enrolling employees in training (examples noted above) to help to reduce the instances of conflict in the workplace and give employees the skills to better manage it when it arises.
Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.