With all the time we spend at work, it is no surprise that conflicts sometimes arise between coworkers. As managers or HR professionals, we often find ourselves trying to sort out squabbles and keep the peace at work. Encouraging an environment of respect and civility and being a good role model on effective workplace communication can go a long way to minimizing the problems caused by conflict. However, you may still find yourself with feuding coworkers on your hands. It is important to address conflicts between coworkers as soon as they develop. Failure to do so may create a toxic work environment, add to office gossip and result in decreased productivity.
SOME DISAGREEMENT IS NORMAL
We are often going to have different ideas on how to approach a task or project. This is a normal part of work. In many situations, we talk through those ideas and either find a compromise or realize that someone else has a better way to approach a project. Disagreement is not always a sign of strife.
When you have two feuding employees on your team, first determine if this is an ongoing issue or something that is part of processing a particular project. Understand the root of the conflict, and avoid letting your emotions determine what happened. Stick to the facts. If this is a disagreement specific to a project, then it is best to let the employees sort it out and come to a solution. If it is an ongoing issue that gets in the way of work getting done, you may need to proceed with some of the suggestions below.
ENCOURAGE EMPLOYEES TO WORK IT OUT
Remember when playground disagreements happened, and one student would inevitably run to get the teacher on duty to sort things out? In my HR experience, I have found that a lot of adults in the workplace treat conflict the same way. They may run to HR or a supervisor for help when they have a problem with a coworker. As I will discuss in the next section, sometimes HR or management intervention is necessary, but often coworkers can and should work things out on their own.
Encourage employees to discuss the problem without help from a third party. Give them time to go to a conference room where they can talk it out. Even if employees are able to sort out their issues, keep an eye on them to make sure old problems do not spring up later on.
MEDIATING A CONVERSATION WITH THE EMPLOYEES
Sometimes employees cannot work out a conflict on their own, and you will need to intervene. If you are too emotionally invested in the conflict, get help from HR or another manager. If you feel like you can remain impartial, then proceed with mediating a conversation with employees on your own. Remember to document the key points of the conversation and anything that was agreed upon in the meeting.
Start by allowing each employee to share their side. Depending on how serious the conflict is, you may want to speak to each employee separately. If you have both employees in the room together, set the ground rule that no one can speak while someone else is speaking.
After both parties have shared their side, allow them to present ideas for possible solutions. Remember that you are there to help keep things civil and to move the conversation along. Ultimately, you want the employees to determine the solution. You can offer ideas or help reinterpret what someone said, but try to let the employees come to a resolution.
WHEN WORKING THROUGH IT IS NOT ENOUGH
What happens if coworkers are still at each other's throats even after trying to work it out on their own and after meeting with you? Training on appropriate workplace communication and problem solving can help. Most employee handbooks have a statement about interacting with coworkers in a respectful manner. If employees are unable to figure out how to get along, you may need to take the appropriate disciplinary action.
If possible, you can minimize the interaction the two employees have, but this is not always realistic given the size of a business or the nature of people's jobs. Instead focus your efforts on getting the employees to interact appropriately. Part of working with other people is learning to resolve conflict, so support an environment where employees can do this.
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Stephanie Hammerwold, PHR is the owner of Hammerwold & Pershing Consulting and specializes in small business HR needs. Stephanie writes about HR topics relevant to the small business community and gives presentations on a variety of job search and workplace topics. She specializes in training, employee relations, women's issues and writing employment policies.
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