How to Handle Conflict Resolution in the Workplace Like a Pro
Conflict occurs in every organization, regardless of size, industry or location. In fact, according to CPP Inc.—the publisher of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® assessment—85% of U.S. employees say they experience some form of conflict at work.
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 has a ripple effect in how the organization is perceived by others.
Whether you’re a HR department of one or you manage a whole team, it’s important that you’re armed with the right strategies so that you can resolve and manage conflict in a timely and effective manner.
In this guide, we’ll teach you how to manage and resolve conflict in the workplace. We’ll also discuss how a culture of understanding, open communication, and collaboration can help to promote a conflict-free working environment.
Developing these conflict resolution skills can go a long way towards making everyone feel safe and cared for in your organization. So when conflicts arise, as they inevitably do, people can trust that they’ll be heard and that the matter will be dealt with accordingly.
What Is Workplace Conflict?
Workplace conflict refers to disagreement or tension among employees of an organization. Such disagreements can disrupt workflow, prevent collaboration and stifle creativity. While it is often believed that employees should work things out themselves or managers should handle conflict disputes, HR professionals are often better equipped to handle workplace conflict and resolve problems among employees.
What Is The Difference Between Conflict And Disagreement?
It's important to understand the difference between conflict and disagreement.
Disagreements are bound to crop up in any business, they don’t normally require intervention and they’re usually a sign of collaboration and communication. In most cases, people are willing to talk and work together in a disagreement.
However, when disputes go beyond professional opinions and involve personal attacks, rudeness, or resentment (whether vented openly or passive-aggressively)— these step over the line of acceptable disagreements and hedge into unacceptable workplace conflicts.
Conflict doesn’t have to be an all-out screaming match, either. Avoidance or silence, which can lead to frustration and resentment, can also be a sign that there’s an issue and flag that it’s time for HR to step in with conflict management strategies.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine whether you’re dealing with a conflict or a disagreement:
- What effect is the situation having on the parties involved? Is it negatively affecting their mood or performance? Or do all parties remain respectful towards one another?
- Is the discord between parties causing stress or negatively affecting other employees’ morale? Or do teammates and subordinates feel encouraged to speak out and challenge the status quo?
- Are there personal issues coloring the argument? Or are the parties involved simply differing in their professional opinions?
What are the Most Common Types of Conflicts in the Workplace?
Conflicts come about for several reasons, many of which are often outside of HR’s control. According to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, the five most common causes of workplace conflict are:
- Interdependence Conflicts
- Differences in Style
- Differences in Background/Gender
- Differences in Leadership
- Personality Clashes
Other reasons for conflict could include:
- Competition for budget or resources
- Varying levels of experience (whether job- or age-related)
- Personal beliefs (religious, political, etc.)
- Interpretation of company communications and policies (or lack thereof)
- Assumptions about intent, behavior, etc.
No matter the cause of workplace conflict, common issues can usually be overcome by improved communication and compromise on the parts of those involved. However, sometimes these problems can get out of hand and require professionals to intervene, so knowing when to step in is important.
When Should HR Get Involved?
Although situations can vary across multiple types of industries, 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 as a result of their behavior.
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What Is HR’s Role in Workplace Conflict Resolution?
It’s important for HR to take a broad and systemic view of conflict management. If simple mediation between employees is your answer to everything, you’ll miss out on opportunities to help employees and your wider organization. What you say and do as an organization affects how employees perceive each other, the business, and their role in it. This in turn impacts internal relations and can influence how easy it is for conflict to arise.
In short, you need to be broadly strategic and build conflict management into your organization’s policies and processes.
Let Managers Do Their Jobs—Unless They’re Involved
To make sure managers have adequate conflict resolution skills, you may need to train them on how to both recognize and address conflict in a professional manner.
However, if the incident is between a manager and a direct report, then HR may have to step in as a neutral party.
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.
—Ivelices Thomas | CEO, HR & Beyond
Never Wait to Intervene or Investigate Serious Violations
Some conflicts call for more drastic conflict resolution strategies in the workplace. If the incident is particularly egregious, like a threat of violence, an allegation of sexual harassment, bullying, etc., you need to step in to protect employees and put an immediate stop to the behavior.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) also recommends that HR step in when employees threaten to quit over an incident, disagreements become personal, or conflicts affect morale and business performance.
When There’s a Conflict of Interest, Get a Neutral Third Party Involved
HR has a responsibility to keep conflict resolution at work fair, so it’s important to remain neutral. If a HR representative is too close to the situation, you’ll need to assign the case to someone else on the HR team or hire a contractor, depending on the situation. If you fail to get a neutral party involved, any attempt at resolution is unlikely.
No matter how fair you are, and no matter how well you've documented the reason for your decisions, if you're friends (or worse, romantically involved) with an employee, every decision around that employee will be tainted.
—Suzanne Lucas | Creator of The Evil HR Lady
Establish a Code of Conduct
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.
A handbook communicates your guiding principles and values, making it a part of your conflict management strategy, and by including a code of conduct in the handbook, you’ll let your employees know the basic expectations for behavior in the workplace.
HR should work closely with leadership, managers, and even employees, depending on the size and complexity of your organization, to create a comprehensive employee handbook or manual. The added bonus is that it will help employees onboard more quickly by giving them a guide to how your company does things.
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.
Here are a few examples of what you might include in your handbook’s code of conduct:
- Communication policies
- Anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies
- Rules for appropriate use of office space
- Dress code
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How to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace (8 Steps)
To better tackle this difficult subject, we’ve compiled a step-by-step guide on how to resolve conflict in the workplace, with tangible insights from a panel of HR experts.
1. Step In Early
There’s no reason to wait to intervene in a conflict, even if it’s not a serious violation. According to SHRM, “ increased productivity and engagement are correlated with the shortness of time between identifying a problem and discussing it.”
Whether it’s an employee coming to you or something you notice, stepping in before it becomes a more serious problem improves the working environment for all those involved. You’re also reducing stress for other employees who often feel the ripple effect of negativity, even if they’re not the central actors in a conflict.
Additionally, if you’re dealing with an openly aggressive employee, you may need to send that employee home for the day before trying to attempt any sort of resolution. It’s important to immediately defuse the situation and protect the ones on the receiving end of the aggression. First, put an end to the outburst and then deal with why it happened.
2. Meet with all Parties Involved
Another key step in dealing with conflict at work is to understand the situation by conducting a proper investigation. HR needs to interview those directly involved and possible witnesses. Depending on the situation, you may need to first meet with each individual separately before meeting together for mediation. Many HR experts suggest initially holding individual meetings or conversations with the involved parties, and only inviting others as needed.
Alternatively, you may decide that it’s best not to have the different parties in the conflict meet together at all. For example, in the case of more serious allegations, like physical or sexual harassment, your priority should be protecting employees and maintaining confidentiality, which makes it improper to meet together with all involved parties.
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,” Ross says.
3. Set Ground Rules for the Meeting
Whether mediating between employees or meeting with individuals, you should aim to frame conflict resolution meetings with specific rules to help employees feel safe expressing their grievances. These rules also serve to remind them of your role as a mediator (rather than a judge).
Here are the suggested rules:
- Have individuals use “I” statements when speaking. When meeting together, this helps them feel more empowered without putting the other person in a defensive position. E.g., “I feel…” or “My concern is…” rather than “You (or they) make me feel…” When meeting individually, it helps them get to the root of their emotions.
- Have each participant take notes while the other employee is taking their turn speaking. This helps the other participants listen more actively rather than interrupting and trying to justify each complaint.
- SHRM also suggests that the person taking notes should then restate what the other person has said. This helps build empathy and validate the other person’s concerns.
4. Brainstorm Solutions Together
Summarize your understanding of the issue back to employees to establish the common ground you’ll all be working from to find a solution. Have employees drive the conversation for how to fix the conflict – they’re more likely to stick to the plan if they come up with it. HR should ensure that employees suggest positive (rather than punitive) actions and that all parties agree on the proposed plan of action.
5. Meet Again, If Needed
Conflict resolution is not always going to be a one-and-done process. You may need to meet a few times if a single meeting isn’t enough for each person to have their say. Also, more sessions may be required to get to the root of an issue, or you may need leadership to approve a certain plan of action.
6. Check In and Monitor Progress
Make sure the action plan includes measures for HR to stay up to date. These mechanisms can include employees submitting reports, HR holding check-in meetings with managers to review day-to-day improvements in employee interactions and other ways to measure and encourage progress.
7. Escalate Response If No Progress Is Made
If any of the employees renege on their agreement and fail to change their behavior, you will have to decide on the next steps. This will depend on the severity of the conflict, of course, and what’s feasible in your organization.
If you have more than one location or different teams, you might offer employees the opportunity to transfer if they aren’t able to resolve their differences. Alternatively, if employees aren’t improving their behavior despite your best efforts, then you might need to consider terminating their contract.
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8. Make Sure The Same Problem Won’t Happen Again
The best conflict resolution processes not only resolve current issues but also help prevent the same problem from occurring 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.”
How to Prevent Conflict From Escalating
Despite all efforts to find a resolution, sometimes 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.”
Additionally, 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.”
How to Build a Conflict-Free Workplace
While it’s impossible to completely prevent conflict in the workplace, you can create an atmosphere that minimizes conflict by encouraging openness, tact and trust. You can also train your employees to have better conflict resolution skills so your entire organization feels empowered to build a positive working culture.
Build a Culture of Open Communication
One way to keep problems from escalating past the point of no return is to build a resilient culture that everyone—from leadership to brand new hires—contributes to. Thankfully, you don’t have to own culture as another responsibility on your ever-growing list. However, HR can be a strong driver for company culture and a cheerleader for the managers and employees doing their best to put it into practice.
Here are some suggestions for starting a culture of openness at your workplace:
- Get honest feedback from your employees about how your organization is doing, how they feel at work, and how their managers are doing — and take that feedback seriously.
- Have leadership and management communicate openly, about how the company is doing, plans for the future, or other initiatives, positive or negative, that will affect employees.
- Evaluate your performance review process and make sure that performance reviews are frequent enough to tackle problems as they arise. You should also ensure that reviews focus on building employee strengths.
- Discuss the onboarding process with leadership and managers to decide how to best communicate your value of transparency and train them to screen for communication skills during interviews with candidates.
- Incorporate training for your values and culture during onboarding.
Train Managers and Employees On Conflict Resolution Skills
HR shouldn’t have to shoulder the load of conflict resolution all by themselves. Everyone should work together to build a workplace that is free from the stress of conflict. To achieve this, train your managers and employees on how to address conflict appropriately within the workplace. While this may take various forms of implementation and will depend on the specific challenges faced by employees, here are some general techniques to try:
Communication training can be an effective tool for teaching new skills and help to set the right tone for what is and isn’t appropriate in your organization. When deciding how to go about tailoring the training, consider the following questions:
- Company values: What does your organization value or prioritize when it comes to communication between employees? Tying your efforts to the company’s mission or values will help you decide where to focus your training efforts and will also strengthen your culture.
- Specific outcome: What specific skill or set of skills would be most helpful for your employees? Focus on what’s most relevant rather than diluting the training with too much information.
For example, at BambooHR, part of teaching conflict resolution skills happens during onboarding. We teach a communication class that focuses on one of our company values, ‘Be Open’, which helps familiarize new hires with our communication standards and culture.
This value is all about giving and receiving honest feedback at every level to further new opportunities and solve problems, so we go over how to have difficult conversations that are productive without being confrontational.
We also provide each new hire with a copy of the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, which reinforces these skills.
Mindfulness is all about being present in the moment rather than letting our thoughts and emotions hijack our attention and feelings.
In a research review, psychologists found that mindful employees “may be more creative, have greater insights, and hold more information in their mind at one time. Rather than being emotionally reactive, they tend to have negative feelings less regularly, and these dissipate more rapidly.”
Mindfulness resolves many sources of worker conflict, helping replace stressed co-workers with engaged employees, emotional reactions with empathy, and fear or poor performance with trust in leadership’s support.
Next Steps: Strive for Harmonious Company Culture
Conflict resolution isn’t the most glamorous part of HR, but it’s imperative to have conflict resolution strategies in the workplace to help establish and maintain a healthy and effective working environment. Always remember, no one is perfect and conflicts may arise, but it’s important that employees feel safe enough to bring up their problems.
To build a workplace that resolves conflict, HR needs to:
- Think of conflict management as a broad strategy that should be included in all policies and processes
- Step in to resolve conflicts as soon as possible
- When conflicts do flare up, help mediate between employees so they can come to a compromise and work towards improving their relationship
- Provide training on how to communicate respectfully and how to build a positive work culture for both employees and managers.
A truly inspired HR professional will not only manage conflict effectively but will also recognize the hidden opportunities it provides to help create a better overall working environment.
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