April 7, 2016

How do you resolve workplace conflict?

One in ten cases of workplace conflict result in one of the affected parties quitting their job, according to the CIPD survey ‘Getting under the skin of workplace conflict: Tracing the experience of employees’. That is not a statistic that any HR professional wants to be true in their organisation – particularly when you consider that 38% of respondents to the CIPD survey had experienced some form of conflict in the preceding 12 months, as discussed in our other blog post on conflict in the workplace.

To avoid losing that one employee in ten or suffering all the other problems associated with workplace conflict – lost productivity, morale, creativity, employee satisfaction and increased sickness absence – HR needs to ensure that line managers are able to resolve conflict quickly and effectively.

HR and line managers need to be aware of the issues that typically cause conflict in the first place. According to Acas, the organisation focused on resolving workplace disputes, there are nine common causes:

– ineffective or insufficiently trained management
– unfair treatment
– unclear job roles
– poor communications
– poor work environments
– lack of equal opportunities
– bullying and harassment
– unresolved problems from the past
– an increase in workload

All of these are staple HR issues. Many, if not all, of them are also typical line management issues. However, somewhat problematically, the person who is supposed to resolve conflict is often actually part of the conflict: ie the manager. The CIPD survey showed that the manager-employee relationship is a common area of conflict. This conflict is often precipitated by differences in personality of working styles.

That is another reason why it is so important that HR invests sufficient time and resources in improving management and leadership capabilities and doing it organisation-wide. Managers need to be able to deal with conflict between their employees. They also need to make sure they are not themselves in conflict with any employees.

Are managers up to the job of resolving conflict? Almost half (41%) of the respondents to a survey by the leadership company, Healthy Companies International, didn’t think so. Some of them even said line managers can make matters worse by not understanding what the problem is, by being too confrontational or by not tackling the situation dispassionately, for example.

HR needs to understand the strengths and weaknesses of managers and help them in those areas of weakness. All managers should have training in how to handle difficult conversations with employees. Managers also may need help in improving their communication, listening and mediation skills. These are all really important management and leadership capabilities that should not be underestimated.

It is also about having the right organisational culture, one where employees are encouraged to express their opinions and feelings openly and appropriately, where employees and managers listen to what other people have to say.

Of course, HR should ensure that there are clear discipline, grievance and dispute procedures in place for dealing with conflict. However, the ideal is always to resolve disputes long before they get to that stage.