As a business, there is a lot to manage when employing staff – from understanding minimum entitlements to managing issues with performance or conduct, there is a considerable amount to remain aware of and be prepared to handle. However, interpersonal conflict amongst employees is one particular aspect that many employers hope they won’t have arise in the workplace, as these can be particularly difficult and oftentimes awkward to manage.
The reality is that this type of conflict is an inevitable part of employing staff. The business is bringing together a vast range of individuals with different working styles, viewpoints, experience and personality traits, with the expectation that they work together effectively to achieve their goals within the shared space. However, sometimes these differences may be difficult for employees to overcome themselves and effectively communicate through; leading to disagreements or tension in the workplace. This type of conflict between two or more individuals is interpersonal conflict and can be extremely detrimental to the well-being of your employees, and the overall culture and level of productivity in the business.
Considering the significant impact these disagreements between staff can have, it is imperative that as an employer, you have in place clear, written procedures for raising grievances and resolving workplace disputes. Importantly, these processes should ensure that how these are handled is fair and unbiased, and aim to provide the best resolution to the matter raised. If left unresolved, these conflicts can continue to escalate to more serious matters such as into forms of bullying or harassment, or they can lead to other employee issues such as underperformance or misconduct. The way the business reacts to these issues demonstrates the precedence of what ethos and culture the business wants to foster in the workplace, and how the business expects employees to conduct themselves while at work.
Examples of common reasons for interpersonal conflict
- Clash in personality;
- Leadership style;
- Various communication or work styles;
- Different opinions or viewpoints
- Ineffective processes or systems in place
It’s important to keep in much that each issue is nuanced and needs to be handled specifically to the actual matter at hand, considering factors such as how far these conflicts may have escalated, how serious the behaviour is between the staff, the impact this may be having on the wider business or team or how long this may have been occurring. However, generally to avoid or resolve these kinds of clashes, the business will need to have in place strategies to assist the employee in improving their communication and work through any pain points, in order to work productively together.
As mentioned, within the workplace there are going to be a range of different personality styles, which means employees are unlikely to all consider each other friends – however, it should be an expectation that the employees can work through communication barriers or differences in ideas to work collaboratively as one team. Below we look further at a couple of measures you can utilise to assist in instances where your employees do not seem to be able to work through issues, and set a precedence on acceptable standards of behaviour within the workplace.
1. Understand the Driver to the Conflict
Firstly, it is important to understand if there are any issues that may be exacerbating conflict. It may be the case that the issue is deeper than simply two employees not getting along, and may actually be a result of other issues such as with a process or system in place, clarity around job roles or duties, or a lack of proper training. Where there is a breakdown in a core process, this is likely to cause an increase in errors, turnaround times or unclear expectations of staff responsibilities. The additional stress and pressure this may place on staff is likely to negatively impact their relationships with colleagues, particularly where there may already be difficulties caused by various communication and personality styles.
For example, if an employee has to upskill or train a new employee, if there is no standardised training program, it could cause the training to rush over or not address certain aspects of the role. This can lead to a lack of clarity on the best approach to performing the role, increasing knowledge gaps within the team and a lack of clear rules on how to effectively complete tasks. The issues that result from this can lead to conflict amongst the team and disagreements on how tasks should be handled.
Understanding whether the conflict may be a by-product of another issue can help the business to resolve the issue more effectively and reduce the likelihood of further conflicts, and facilitate the employees working together collaboratively.
2. Encourage employees to be solution focused
Where employees have involved management in the issues, the business should first assess the situation as to whether there may be an immediate need for intervention (such as where the dispute has escalated into a form of bullying or is causing severe distress to the individual). However, where it is evident the issue is simply ineffective communication or collaboration, the business should encourage the employees to work together to overcome the issue and come to a resolution on what may be the best way to move forward.
Encourage the employees to work as a team to think of solutions to the issue they may be experiencing, what remedies they may take to resolve this, what they believe is the root cause of the problem and what changes they can make to responding or handling issues. Having the employees work together and be solutions focused is likely to ensure all parties feel heard and come to a resolution that takes into account their perspective and needs to overcome the matter. This is an important step to having the individuals work cooperatively to de-escalate the situation before management steps in further, as ultimately, the employees should be seeking to find common ground on how they intend to work together and achieve their goals.
3. Invest in clear Workplace Policies and team training
It is imperative the business has clear policies in place of how employees are expected to behave and act within the workplace. This makes clear from the outset to all employees exactly how they are expected to handle themselves when communicating with their colleagues and potential consequences where they may fail to meet these standards.
We recommend a clear Code of Conduct, which can set out expectations of appropriate behaviour in the workplace. This can hopefully be a means of preventing inappropriate behaviour from arising in the first place, but can also be referred to when conflicts arise, as a reminder of how employees should be conducting and communicating within the workplace. This is especially important where the issue may be leading to considerably inappropriate behaviours in the workplace such as making derogatory statements about colleagues, gossiping, rude or uncivil behaviour to colleagues, or other unprofessional conduct.
Further, it is also important to have in place a robust Workplace Anti-Bullying and Anti-Harassment policy. This will be especially relevant to reference if the conflict has escalated even more seriously into a form of bullying and harassment, to which the business would need to have clear processes in place to handle these issues.
Additionally, providing further training to all employees in the business on how to effectively communicate amongst the wider team is a great tool in assisting employees understand the different communication styles, learning styles and personality styles within the workplace.
If the employees are unable to resolve the conflict effectively themselves, informal mediation may be another way to attempt to find a resolution. It must be clear when initially offering the mediation that both employees need to be agreeable to undertaking the process. The purpose of the mediation is to create a space to voice and work through the issues, and encourage effective communication between the employees. The business can consider strategies for conflict resolution such as a Stop, Start, Keep approach. This is where the parties come to an agreement (often in writing) on what behaviours to Stop (i.e. demeaning methods of communication, ignoring each other etc.), what behaviours to Start (i.e. raising performance concerns with management instead of each other, speaking appropriately to one another), and what behaviours to Keep (any behaviours which may actually be working well i.e. using email as the main place for communication). Make clear to the employees that the point is not to blame each other for certain behaviours, rather work cooperatively to find a solution into either party’s pain points and move forward as a team.
As mentioned, each conflict is different and what strategy will work best will depend on not only the situation but also the employees and their ability to engage in conflict resolution. Importantly, sometimes the issues will resolve, but it may be the case that the employees may be unwilling to improve, or unable to move past the conflict. It is important at these times that the business keeps an active eye on the situation to ensure that there is no under-performance or serious conduct issues that may arise from this conflict, and where these do occur addressing them immediately to prevent any further impact this may have. It may also be prudent to consider other measures such as minimising the interaction between the employees or having processes in place that aim to improve their interactions.
If you need further assistance in managing conflict in the workplace including clear Workplace Policies, please reach out to the HR Connect team.
About HR Connect
HR Connect is one of Australia’s leading providers of HR and workplace safety advice service, designed to help small business owners make confident and compliant business decisions.
The information provided in these blog articles is general in nature and is not intended to substitute for professional advice. If you are unsure about how this information applies to your specific situation we recommend you contact HR Connect for advice.