Conflict Resolution in the Workplace (Advice from HR Experts)

What is Conflict in the Workplace?

Conflict in the workplace is any disagreement or behavior involving HR that disrupts the flow of work, prevents collaboration, or stifles creativity.

No matter the cause of these conflicts, they are unavoidable. According to one study, 85 percent of U.S. employees deal with conflict on some level and spend an average of 2.1 hours per week involved in conflict.

Human resource professionals are often tasked with conflict resolution in the workplace, and the way they deal with managing conflict at work not only affects the parties involved, but also produces a ripple effect in how other employees view the company.

Keep reading for insights from a panel of HR experts on how to effectively manage conflict at work.

What are the Most Common Conflicts in the Workplace?

According to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, the five most common conflicts in the workplace are

  1. Interdependence Conflicts
  2. Differences in Style
  3. Differences in Background/Gender
  4. Differences in Leadership
  5. Personality Clashes

These common issues can usually be overcome by better communication and compromise on the parts of those who are involved. However, sometimes these problems get out of hand and require professionals to untangle the mess.

When Should HR Get Involved?

Although situations can vary dramatically across multiple types of industries, there are some commonly practiced standards. The simple answer is that HR should get involved in any situation where an employee violates the company’s policy on worker conduct. The amount of involvement and the consequences for these violations should be established beforehand so that employees understand what action will be taken by the company based on their actions.

Once HR is involved, there are many moving pieces that work together to successfully de-escalate and resolve the situation. In order to better tackle this difficult subject, we’ve compiled insights from a panel of HR experts on how to effectively manage conflict at work.

Start with Processes

Conflict resolution can be made an integral part of your company culture.

HR experts agree that it’s important to clearly communicate your company’s policies and conflict resolution process from the start. At the very least, make sure they’re included in the employee handbook and that management fully understands them.

Ivelices Thomas, CEO of HR & Beyond, suggests taking it a step further by providing training to front-line managers on how to manage workplace conflict: “Because HR is often not aware of the conflict until it has become an escalated situation, arming managers with the knowledge on how to both recognize and confidently address conflict will help organizations most effectively manage conflict.”

Conflict resolution can also be made an integral part of company culture, as Element Three has done by creating an internal accountability process that provides employees with a system to handle conflict. Karen Seketa, VP of Talent, explains that the three-step process is tied to their core values: “[It] invites employees to address issues with the other party directly first, invite an impartial facilitator at stage two if needed, and then escalate to senior leadership if necessary at stage three. But it always begins with direct interaction with the individual as the first step.” The process itself reinforces Element Three’s core value of being open and honest with each other.

Conflict Resolution Meetings

If lag time between conflict and resolution determines the health of a relationship, as Crucial Conversations author Joseph Grenny theorizes, then the ideal way to manage conflict in the workplace is to nip it in the bud. But that isn’t always going to happen. When conflict reaches a certain point, it may require bringing in an HR professional and/or a manager to help work things out.

Privacy allows employees to feel free to open up and voice their concerns without fear of other employees hearing them.

Jagoda Wieczorek, HR manager at ResumeLab, says the first thing to do is change the setting. “We want to escape the cubicle to get everyone to feel more [comfortable] to speak about sticky issues.”

Many of our experts suggested holding individual meetings or conversations with the involved parties first, and only inviting others as needed. At The Slumber Yard, conflict resolution meetings take place in a private office. Matthew Ross, co-owner and COO, points out that privacy allows employees to feel free to open up and voice their concerns without fear of other employees hearing them. “We also try to hold the meetings during non-peak hours (early in the morning or late in the evening) so that it’s not obvious to all the employees that a disciplinary meeting is taking place.”

In these types of meetings, HR & Beyond’s Thomas makes sure to “focus on behavior and events, not personalities.”

When Conflict Escalates

It’s bound to happen sometime; despite all efforts to find a resolution, some workplace conflicts escalate. Handling these situations appropriately and effectively is critical. As Phoebe Griffits, marketing & PR manager at KIS Finance points out, “Conflicts that remain unresolved and continue to escalate are highly toxic and can do lasting damage to your business.”

Chris Chancey of Amplio Recruiting says that empathy is the key to de-escalating conflict. “When a conflict escalates, it either means that things were allowed to fester or the solutions presented were not feasible. In addition to empathizing with both parties, it is also important to try to arrive at a solution that is agreeable to both sides and not imposed by the manager, HR, or management.”

Making Sure the Same Problem Won’t Happen Again

The best conflict resolution processes not only resolve current issues but help guard against the same problem happening in the future. Several experts advised addressing problems as soon as possible to keep them from simmering and giving birth to recurring conflicts.

Underscoring the “earlier is better” idea, Chris Chancy of Amplio Recruiting says that effective conflict management starts during the hiring process: “I have learned that hiring people with strong conflict-management skills in the first place helps to minimize conflict in the workplace.”

Nate Masterson of Maple Holistics recommends taking a broader look at culture or employee communication: “When there’s conflict in the workplace, it might not only be a reflection on the specific employees involved. It can also be an indication that something needs to change in the workplace overall to make for a more cohesive group.”

Finding Opportunity in Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution in the workplace will often fall under the HR umbrella. A truly inspired HR professional will not only manage it effectively, but will recognize the hidden opportunities it provides to create a better overall work environment.

There comes a time when HR can use a boost, and that’s where BambooHR comes in. Find out how we support HR professionals with the right tools so that they can focus on what really matters.