Mismanaging employee conflict or letting it go unaddressed can quickly become very costly to the productivity, bottom line and organisational culture of an organisation. Studies show that on average, employees spend about 3 hours every week dealing with workplace disputes – this has damaging implications for employee morale as well as the workplace’s daily operations.

As a result, an employer’s approach to conflict resolution is crucial in shaping the overall strength of a workplace and its ability to weather internal disputes without disrupting company processes and momentum. Ineffective strategies towards handling disputes can turn the workplace into a hostile environment, especially if conflict is repeatedly allowed to fester rather than confronted and adequately managed by those in leadership positions. 

Trying to manage employee conflict is a task with many hurdles and the potential drain on time, money and productivity only adds to the challenge. In fact, research shows that managers spend up to 24% of their time resolving conflict which could be better spent on more conducive company endeavours and projects. To effectively resolve the situation, employers must do their due diligence in enforcing their company’s conflict resolution strategies, as well as mediating workplace disputes when necessary.

To be successful when doing so is difficult because of how contextually dependent the nature of each conflict is, however with strong strategies and leadership, an employer can work towards a solution that satisfies everyone and mitigates any consequences to the organisation.

Outlined below are some important strategies to keep in mind as well as things to avoid when employee conflict arises in your workplace.

Do’s for managing employee conflict

Do keep an open-door policy for employees

An open door policy refers to a workplace leader’s indication that they are open and willing to listen to an employee’s complaints and challenges at work. It is especially beneficial in picking up on conflict when in its early stages which can prevent any major harm from later occurring. Having such a policy fosters open communication, allowing the employer to be privy to the nature of the conflict and hence able to better manage it accordingly.

However, to enable its success, employers need to showcase their commitment to the policy by actively listening, responding and taking action when required. Doing so will communicate the value of the policy to workers and encourage them to approach workplace leaders about any disputes they may be struggling with.

Do note the severity of the conflict before getting involved

The level and type of your involvement when resolving a dispute will depend greatly on its severity. The nature, cause and circumstances surrounding the dispute must first be understood before any steps can be taken towards resolution.

Each employee conflict has its unique circumstances and hence an adequate assessment is required from the employer- for example, is it a small dispute due to miscommunication or something far more serious such as harassment or discrimination allegations?

Taking the time to look into this is paramount in shaping not only the approach taken but also the eventual outcome.

Do give room to employees to handle the issue amongst themselves

Despite the sense of responsibility employers may inherently feel towards the workplace, it would be ill-advised to involve oneself in every conflict that arises. For one, there are many instances where it is simply unnecessary to do so and instead far more efficient to let those involved work through the employee conflict themselves. Unnecessarily placing yourselves in between a conflict can seem like micromanaging and takes away the opportunity from the employees to resolve the issue on their own terms.

Additionally, when taking into consideration the sheer amount and type of conflicts that occur within a workplace on a day-to-day basis, the burden on resources and time that resolution would take up would be unsustainable. Employers must carefully consider the need for external influence on the resolution process and monitor the dispute until their influence in the resolution process is deemed necessary.

Do create a comprehensive solution

The strategy and solutions you propose to resolve an employee conflict need to be comprehensive and fair so that all involved parties not only accept it but benefit from its implementation. A thorough solution takes into consideration all relevant concerns. A few ways you can make sure your strategy is on the right track include:

  • Having a good understanding of the employee conflict and its surrounding context. Make sure you have talked to the involved parties and considered multiple perspectives before making any permanent decisions.
  • Coming up with more than one solution or parts of a solution. This allows the involved parties to have more choice in the matter and they are able to go with what works best for their needs
  • Encourage the employees to offer feedback on the conflict resolution plan and if they have any particular concerns or additional ideas. It’s the employees that will need to follow through and commit to the resolution so their input will aid the success of the final plan.
  • Once the plan has been set in motion, make sure to follow up after a relevant time period to ensure that it has been adequately implemented or if any changes need to be made.
Employee Conflict

Dont’s for managing employee conflict

Don’t impose your influence

As a workplace leader, your actions and words carry weight with them and this can quickly turn into an overbearing influence that you may not realise is attempting to push employees towards a solution they may not want. Working through employee conflict can be a very murky business but navigating the amount of grey area is a necessary task for employers

Avoid being rigid or using your influence to push forward a resolution you think works best because this is counterproductive to maintaining a healthy and open relationship with your employees. Being imposing will not help you do your job in an effective or sustainable way and can create even greater tension with employees, making them uncomfortable and unwilling to open up – your position of authority should instead work as a guiding force in the process.

Don’t try to actively avoid tension

Conflict resolution is a task that can become very complicated in a short time span and as a result, it’s not a task that many employers love having on their plate. However, because employee conflict itself is inevitable within the workplace, an employer cannot truly avoid such situations without compromising the health of the entire organisation. Whilst you don’t want to be overbearing, there’s no need to avoid using your position as a workplace authority to address the employee conflict rather than letting it fester between them or enabling the situation to spiral beyond control.

Do not try to ignore the conflict or take measures to shut it down without actually resolving it first (etc. immediately separating the employees by assigning them to different teams and roles). Doing so will not diffuse the tension between employees and is not an effective long-term solution and you cannot take such measures for every conflict that occurs without significantly harming the operations of the company.

Don’t forget to consult your company policy

Your company policy for dealing with employee conflicts should have a role in the decisions you make. In order to ensure you are doing your due diligence and acting within your right as the employer, consulting the policy is a necessary step. Your conflict resolution guidelines should be covered with thorough detail and if you find it to be lacking in its guidance, you should consider reviewing them as soon as feasible.

Sticking to company policy can also protect the company if an employee is unhappy with a decision made and chooses to pursue legal action. The company policy should lay out all possible consequences of any breaches and be checked by a relevant authority for legal validity before being implemented. It can also workers understand the employee resolution processes and protocols that the company follows so they are aware of what their options are in such circumstances. 

To conclude, employee conflict is unavoidable in a workplace that brings together people of different life experiences, backgrounds, cultures and identities to work together towards a shared goal. Employers must build up their ability to manage and resolve disputes efficiently so that they can protect both the company and their employees from the repercussions. Failing to do so can cause collaboration and teamwork to suffer and create a drain on valuable time and resources. 

Employers should work towards an environment where disputes are handled fairly and prompt and only when employees fail to work the situation out amongst themselves – this will build a culture of engaged employees that have a strong sense of teamwork and organisational pride.  Polonious can help you resolve workplace conflict quickly with our complaints investigation workflows.