I used to really enjoy watching The Real Housewives on Bravo. The franchise gave a glimpse into the glittering lives of women in Beverly Hills, Atlanta, and other major cities across America (and Dubai). Unfortunately, over the years, the shows have taken a dark turn. Rather than offering a light-hearted look into the stars’ families and friendships and envious wardrobes, homes, and travel destinations, the shows now highlight the incessant fighting among cast members. In addition to screaming, cursing, and crying, many of the women have had altercations involving destruction of property, hair pulling, pushing, grabbing, and other forms of physical assault. There have even been multiple instances of cast members threatening to obtain restraining orders against each other, and one former housewife is currently suing Bravo for maintaining a toxic work environment.
The in-fighting among the Real Housewives has sadly become the raison d’être of the franchise, and the vitriol spills over online immediately after each episode with viewers taking sides about which ladies they love and which ladies they despise. Frankly, as a litigator, I get enough drama and heated exchanges in my daily life dealing with the opposing counsel who are suing my clients. I don’t need or want to see a bunch of middle-aged, over-privileged women throwing temper tantrums during my down-time.
Inevitably, as HR professionals, you will one day be tasked with responding to a fight that breaks out between the employees of your organization. Unlike Bravo, which capitalizes off the toxic drama unfolding on screen, you should take the following steps to neutralize conflict in the workplace.
Separate the Employees
If employees are engaged in a heated argument that involves yelling, trading inflammatory accusations, or physically threatening behavior, the first step is to separate the employees immediately. Send the employees to separate areas of your business to calm down, or send them home. If the employees do not respond to your direction to cease fighting, you may have to enlist the assistance of security or law enforcement to restore order.
Investigate What Happened
Once the fight has been defused and the employees have been separated, you need to investigate what transpired. You should interview the employees involved in the altercation (separately), as well as any witnesses. You may also need to interview any other employees who have been identified as having background knowledge of the circumstances which led to the disagreement. As you conduct the interviews, carefully document the information received from each witness, and include your impressions regarding the witness’s credibility, demeanor, and cooperation during the investigation process. Depending on the seriousness of the fight, you may need to suspend the employees involved until the investigation is complete.
Take Action Based on Your Policies
Once your investigation is complete, it’s time to take action based on your company’s policies and procedures. If your organization does not have a code of conduct or workplace violence policy articulating what types of behaviors are prohibited in the workplace, you need to implement them pronto. Most policies prevent employees from engaging in conduct that is unprofessional, threatening, or physically aggressive.
Based on the outcome of your investigation, you may determine that one employee is more to blame (or solely to blame) for instigating or escalating the fight. While it is not illegal to terminate one employee while keeping the other, you should carefully document all of the reasons why you treated one employee more harshly than the other to avoid a claim of discrimination. To keep the peace at work, you may need to separate the employees permanently by transferring one of them to a different department or location. Again, documenting the legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for your employment decisions is crucial.
Even if the employees make amends and you elect not to take disciplinary action, you should still require them to review your code of conduct and workplace violence policy and sign a written acknowledgement that they will follow them in the future or face disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment. You should also follow-up with the employees on a regular basis to confirm that there are no lingering problems that need to be addressed.
Manage Pro-Actively to Identify and Avoid Employee Conflict
The best way to prevent fighting in the workplace is to address employee disagreements before they escalate into a full-blown argument. Good managers are pro-active and regularly interact with their employees and seek their feedback to gauge the pulse of the work environment. Even small problems should be addressed rather than ignored in the hope they will go away. Managers should also clearly communicate workplace expectations, the division of responsibilities, and the reporting structure within a department to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings among staff members. Ultimately, a manager’s goal should be to foster a workplace culture that prizes mutual respect, teamwork, and transparency, while avoiding surprises.
Hopefully, the reality unfolding at your business does not resemble the latest explosive episode of the Real Housewives. If, however, your employees become embroiled in a fight, you can use these tips to address the issue fairly and prevent future workplace drama.
Now, if you will excuse me, I’m off to find another show to watch.
Marilyn Moran is a Partner at FordHarrison.