Effectively Managing Employee Conflicts

I have heard many ways that companies attempt to manage employee conflicts. They range from yelling at the employees to firing them to ignoring the situations. These issues don’t go away just because the manager tells the parties in conflict to “stop”. This only serves to create underground conflicts that decrease productivity or increase turnover. A perfect example of this is when I was hired to assist an organization with a dispute between two executive secretaries. I will change parties names and keep the company name confidential.

Ethel was a long time company employee and was the executive secretary for the company VP, Hank. Marie was the executive secretary for the new CEO, Gary. Although Marie and Gary were new to this company, they worked together for many years. When I received the call from Hank, the VP, I was told that Marie and Ethel could not get along and he needed me to get them to play nice. He went on to explain that he had already sat down with both ladies separately and told them they needed to stop acting like teenage girls and put on their big girl panties or they would be fired. As crazy as it sounds, this example is very common. What’s wrong with this approach? This is a classic example of a Band-Aid approach. When I asked Hank how that worked, he said things were quiet for a while and then the S--T hit the fan!

That was an example of what not to do. What should you do? First step is to stay as neutral and judgement free as possible. Then assess the conflict by meeting privately with the parties involved. In the example above, meet with Ethel and Marie and let each of them know that you are meeting with the other person privately and then will make a recommendation about how to proceed. This way employees feeling singled out can be avoided.

Once you meet with the parties privately, you should create a suggested plan of action. Not a plan for how the parties should resolve the conflict, just the process or tools you are suggesting. It’s important to reassure the employees involved that you are on the case and their issues are important. Definitely do not demean them by using language like Hank used. You may suggest that one or more parties work with a senior employee as a mentor or you may suggest hiring a conflict coach. Another possible suggestion is training for the parties to address lack of skills in a specific area. Ideally the underlying conflict should be addressed and resolved first before offering training or coaching. It is highly unlikely that Marie and Ethel will benefit from coaching and training if they do not resolve the underlying conflict first.

I often get asked “When should I hire an external mediator?” Here is a list when a company should consider hiring a professional mediator. When…

  • an employee has retained legal counsel

  • an employee is threatening to file a lawsuit

  • the conflict has been stewing for a long time

  • there is no one inside the company who’s comfortable and skilled in workplace conflicts

  • the dispute has created a toxic or hostile work environment

  • all internal tools have been exhausted

  • the conflict is too time consuming for internal employees

  • one or more parties involved in the conflict do not feel comfortable with the HR manager or person assigned to help. This is usually due to real or perceived lack of neutrality.

Perception of neutrality is a key issue when choosing someone inside the organization to help parties resolve their dispute. If the person chosen to help is not viewed by both sides as impartial, there could be problems with a meaningful resolution. Perception of confidentiality and neutrality is critical to the mediation process and a long term successful resolution. Managing employee conflicts successfully will help your organization decrease turnover, lawsuits and improve employee morale.

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Winter Park, Florida