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Dealing with Conflict at Work

In some cases, the conflict can be a good thing like process improvements or better ideas to service the customer.  This can be part of the “open communication” that is encouraged within the team.  However, in most cases the conflict is more negatively based.  Examples of conflict are:


  • A personal problem with two or more people.  It could be based on issues such as values, beliefs, a friendship gone sour, flirting, sexual harassment, or vulgarity.  These incompatible situations can lead into arguments and even worse, physical fighting.  There is also the chance of termination, especially when dealing with sexual harassment.  The two most common sexual harassment categories, both of which are considered as part of the 1991 Civil Rights Act as illegal employment discrimination with punitive monetary damages, are:


  1. Asking for sexual favors in return for providing a raise, promotion, etc. (Quid pro quo).
  2. What a woman perceives as a hostile environment like unwanted touching, pin-up calendars, sexual jokes, sexual comments, leering, inappropriate photos, etc. 


Your HR representative will most likely be involved if these types of situations were to occur.  See the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for more information.


  • A perception of one working harder than the other.


  • One person blaming another for past mistakes.


  • Rebellious jealousy because it looks like you are playing favorites.


  • Not happy or thinks it’s unfair with the type of work assigned to them.


  • Personality clash.  For example, a systematic vs. unorganized approach to the job, or a sensitive person vs. insensitive person.


  • Disagreements – one person feels it should be done one way, and another feels it should be done another way.  This could be based on ideas, goals, process discrepancies, etc.


  • Inappropriate dress for work.  It might be too revealing or unprofessional.


  • Personal hygiene.


You should have your radar on at all times to try and prevent these conflicts before they escalate.  You should take the time to learn and understand the laws associated with the EEOC  This includes understanding the policies regarding Affirmative Action, as you or your supervisor’s personal attitude can make or break your organizations EEOC and affirmative action policies.  If you create an atmosphere of equality, and help facilitate understanding and tolerance among all employees, you should be able to avoid any conflicts associated with the EEOC and affirmative action. 


Keep a tight rein on any individuals who are problem talkers and deal with any outbreaks immediately.  Also as manager, you should never joke around about any sensitive subjects.  You have to always use common sense and never make comments that could make some laugh and hurt others.  That is not to say you should not have a sense of humor, as in many cases your sense of humor can help build team morale and help eliminate stress.  Just be careful on what you joke about.  Never joke about anything dealing with racism, sexism, religion, etc. 


You also need to be careful not to make promises you cannot keep.  For example, telling someone they will get a raise or a promotion if they finish a project on time when you are not 100% certain it is even possible.  Unless you are 100% certain, never make such a claim.  An innocent type of comment like this can become the basis of a binding employment contract. 


Another concern deals with being a member of management in an unionized organization.  You have two job functions as you need to perform your normal management duties by getting the most productivity out of your workers, and you need to be aware of, and adhere to, management’s commitments under the union contract.  The National Labor Relations Act outlines unfair labor practices that can affect you as manager.  You should be well aware of the main issues like blocking an employee to form or join a union, attempting to influence a labor union, and discriminating against members of a union.  These legal and actionable offences can lead to your dismissal along with a great deal of cost to your company.


When it comes to anticipating potential conflict, look for signs such as tension in the air, off handed comments, backstabbing, manipulation, a normally outspoken person is now quiet, a normally quiet person is now outspoken, facial expressions, and undermining.  You need to react immediately using the managerial skills described throughout this course and not let it simmer.  If, however, an interpersonal issue does occur, do not put your head in the sand and hope it all works out.  You must make it a priority to get involved and resolve the problem.  Conflict resolution, whether resolved by you, or you acting as a mediator, is essential.  Even if you do nothing but let the parties work it out themselves, it’s ok as long as it truly gets resolved.  If the conflict is not resolved, you might run into emotional issues leading to withdrawal and also possible resignation.  You need to get involved, but how involved you get determines on the severity of the conflict.

Determine the type of conflict and the severity.  The types of conflicts determine the type of approach that should be taken.  Here are three questions to determine the type and the actions you should take based on the severity of the conflict:


  1. Is the conflict an issue that is shared by all on the team?  These conflicts can be issues creating disharmony with the team such as problems with the processes and procedures that are in place, other departments that are not doing their job correctly, or customers unhappy with the service or product thus creating friction amongst the team, etc. 


  • If yes, then you should ask all of the, who, what, when, where, how, and why type of questions.  Find the points of failure causing the friction and show your team that you are doing all you can to correct and remedy the situation. 
  • If no, then proceed to question 2.

    1. Is the conflict due to one individual?  These conflicts can be issues such as personal hygiene, an employee inappropriately dressed, or an individual complaining of the work assigned to them or thinks it’s unfair, etc.


    • If yes, here are some ways to deal with the issue:


    o        If it is a dress code issue, first see if there is a dress code in place by HR that you can easily find in the handbook.  If there is, explain that this is corporate policy.  If not, then you need to talk to them in private and be honest and upfront by stating that, in your opinion (do not say another individual is complaining), what they are wearing is not appropriate.  You might determine that the problem is due to such issues like safety, causing disruption in the office, or because it might make people feel uncomfortable.  In most cases the employee will feel a bit embarrassed and understandable.  If not, then you need to state that part of your managerial responsibilities is to make sure the department works in harmony, and that you cannot afford any disruptions of any kind.  If needed, you can ask for HR’s help.  Don’t be surprised if the employee compares what they are wearing to what another employee is wearing.  If so, just say that you will look into it and will deal with any situations that need attention.  You might truly have to address that issue as well.


    o        If it is a hygiene issue, first off speak to them in private and say that you have something that is somewhat uncomfortable to talk about, but needs to be addressed nonetheless.  Ask them to please do all that they can to make sure their personal hygiene is taken care of before coming into the office.  You can state that part of your managerial responsibilities is to make sure the department works in harmony and that you cannot afford any disruptions of any kind, including hygiene related issues.  You do need to be careful as the hygienic problem might be medically related.  You might want to suggest they see a doctor about certain hygienic issues if the problem continues.  Just make sure to let them know to please do all they can to control their hygiene as much as possible.  If it does not improve, you should talk to HR about the next steps that should be taken.  You might need to move the person to an area away from the group. 


    o        If they are not happy with the work assigned to them, or think it’s unfair, then you need to ask them why they feel this way and be prepared to discuss all possible options.  If for instance they are complaining about the work given to them, find out if other staff members also have the same complaint.  Also compare this person’s workload to the other staff members.  If this person is indeed working harder, then you need to address the issue with your staff.   If not, then you need to tell them that the workload is part of the overall job responsibilities.  Let them know that you will look into possible process improvements or if it is possible to hire more staff. 


    Another example would be if someone is complaining because of the extra workload the late shift has to perform, which has less people and added responsibility.  You should remind them that they agreed to work that shift, however, you should give them the option to move into another shift.  If another shift is not available, let them know they will be on the waiting list.  At least they can see the light at the end of the tunnel and that you understand their predicament.


    • If no then proceed to question 3.


    1. Is the conflict pertaining to more than one individual based on personal issues, personality clashes, disagreements, etc.?


    • There might be times when the problem rectifies itself before you get involved.  It might be too trivial to worry about and the best solution is to postpone setting up a meeting and let the issue die down on it’s own.  For the simple conflicts, your serious involvement might just be throwing more salt into the wound.  However, you need to be 100% sure that all is good by monitoring the situation for a while. 


    • If you feel there is a true problem, then you need to meet with all of the individuals involved at the same time.  Do not meet with them separately or else you will probably get over exaggerated and potentially untrue comments.


    You will most likely be acting as a mediator, so your job is to let each person briefly state their issue with no interruptions from anyone else in the room.  You would only intervene if it starts to get out of control.  After hearing both sides, you need to sum up each other’s point of view to be sure everyone is on the same page.  At that point, you would ask each of them what it would take to appease each other.  The overall goal is to have all parties commit to making the necessary changes to resolve, or at least reconcile, the conflict.  Let them know that you expect and have the confidence that they will make every attempt to resolve each others differences with respect for one another.  You should also follow up after a week or month to make sure all is on track.  Here are three common conflict examples between two or more people:



      • Friendship problems.  It is inevitable that strong friendships will develop between co-employees, and that’s fine.  People are happier when they have a true good friend at work.  The problems you may see is too much socializing when they should be working, other team members getting jealous which can create a bad atmosphere, or if they get in a fight which creates tension.  In most cases, the good outweighs the bad.  However, if there is a problem, fix it as soon as possible.  If you do not personally see the conflict, you can spot these types of situations through performance appraisals, comparative stats, the rumor mill, or passing comments.  Your job as manager is to make sure they fully understand that their friendship cannot affect their work.  Let them know it also affects the work and morale of any other team members.  Most of the time it all works out and gets resolved either during the meeting you have with them or right after. 


      • Personality clash, differences in life styles, different beliefs and values, etc.  The saying, “Oil and water don’t mix,” holds true in the workplace.  Some people just do not see “eye to eye” and that creates tension.  In most cases, there is nothing you can do to make them like each other.  If the conflict came to the point to be discussed in your office, the best thing you can do is to let them talk it out.  You can also share your views of the overall goals of the department and the type of teamwork needed.  It does not mean they have to be friends, but they both need to understand the main objective and that you cannot have it any other way.  They need to walk out of the office with a sense of mutual respect due to the same goals you instilled upon them.


      • Disagreements or mixed expectations.  Issues like; how one person does not like the way the other person enters data, how one person troubleshoots differently than another, how one person tells another how to do their job, or how one person expects a report at a certain time and does not get it, are all classic examples of disagreements and mixed expectations.  This may be process related in which you need to fix.  However, most of the time it is just the point of view or misunderstanding of one person towards another.  After hearing both sides, examine and work it out to where there is a compromise.  Based on these examples, some compromises would be; there should be more detailed data entered, but it does not have to be a book.  There can be a few more troubleshooting steps, but the overall performance is acceptable.  A person can help another, but should never act like the boss.  And finally, the report can be guaranteed to be ready at 11:00, instead of the unrealistic 9:00.  These are the type of creative compromising ideas you need, to be able to resolve the minor problems.  Unless it is an absolute work related problem that defies the company’s values and job expectations, little compromises like these usually resolves the issue.


    Steps to take when dealing with conflict:


    1. Counsel and Verbal warning:  First, send a simple e-mail asking them to stop by your office at a given time.  Do not go into details or specifics, just a simple invite.  You can also verbally ask them as well as long as it’s done privately.  If there is a problem with the scheduled time, simply move it to a time that is good for all.  Try not to make the meeting seem mandatory or else you will already start off with a negative approach.  The point is to make the meeting as indiscreet as possible and also gives them a chance to prepare for the discussion.


    When you meet, after you say your hello’s, say the reason you ask them to visit you is to discuss something that is difficult to share, and a bit uncomfortable, but needs to be addressed.  You can also start off with something like, “I understand there is a problem that needs some attention.”  Do not bring any person or persons names up, or that there is even a complaint from anyone.  This is straight from you, which is part of the job of being manager.  You want to make sure that it is understood that you are the one who is bringing the matter into the forefront.  Use a lot of “I” statements like, “I want to make sure we do everything possible to resolve this issue,” or “I understand what you are saying, but…” 


    Be straightforward, simple, and to the point, yet empathetic, which strengthens and deepens the relationship and rapport.  Do everything you can not to embarrass the person.  When dealing with a conflict involving more than one person, you will be most likely acting as a mediator.  You want to resolve the conflict by “reasoning together.”  Be sure to have each of them briefly describe the problem and to not interrupt each other.  Always try to focus on the positive aspects of each other’s statement.  Once each person has had a chance to explain their side, you can ask how we as a team can correct this situation.  You should mostly be listening to them work on trying to resolve or reconcile the issue at hand, which is exactly what you want.  If tempers flare, be sure to intervene and make sure everyone is calmed down before proceeding.  Make sure everyone sticks to the point, but is able to get everything out.  Make sure to follow their statements and solutions with clear and precise summation.  By repeating back what has been said solidifies the solutions.


    Keep a cool head and remain in control of your own emotions.  Employees might be irrational with no common sense, uncooperative, mean, and disrespectful.  Use a calm tone and make sure you present yourself with an understanding attitude.  Let them know that you do care and will do all you can to help resolve the issue.  Just never talk to them with a condescending tone.  Also, always bite your tongue before you say something you might regret.  Certain words can set someone off on a tangent.  Also be careful using certain actions such as hand gestures, crossing your arms in a defiant way, confused facial expressions, demoralized posture, too much eye contact, or sounds and grunts of discontent.  You will get your point across more effectively if you keep it professional at all times.  Keep your advice to yourself and let them work it out mutually.  You should only get involved with advice or solutions when there are no other alternatives, or if you are asked for your help in the matter.


    Make sure all parties make an agreement on the direction and steps needed to solve the problem, or create the opportunity.  You need to make sure that everyone is focused on the big picture and on the future.  There should be no more blame game.  Your goal is to find a win/win situation where all parties involved are satisfied with the outcome.  A compromise is good, but if you can have them leave with the feeling of a change for the better, you’ve reduced the chance of future conflict.  Also remember, the quicker you help resolve the issue, the less chance the conflict spreads throughout the whole department.


    If you think the problem may take some time to resolve, then you need to get all parties involved to reach an agreement on a timeframe when this will be resolved.  In most cases the issue can be rectified immediately.  



    1. Written warning, suspension or termination:  If the issue is not resolved after implementing step 1, then you will need to explain possible disciplinary action.  The nature of the discipline depends on the issue and HR policies.  Issues dealing with conflict are not as clear-cut as job performance or attendance problems, which are described later in this lesson.  With those types of problems, there is usually a process like a verbal warning, then a written warning, then either another written warning or suspension, before finally resulting in termination.  With conflict issues, depending on the severity, you might need to go to suspension and/or termination stage right away.



      Always remember that you should be:


      • Well prepared.  Have all your ducks in a row and all necessary documentation, important notes, and facts to discuss with confidence.


      • Non-judgmental.  Make it known that you are not taking sides or made any pre-conceived judgments.  Remain objective and see each person’s perspective.  You goal is to only find resolution, or at least reconciliation.  You want to be decisive when you need to confront, however, you will mostly be listening and mediating, especially when dealing with more than one person.


      • Documenting everything!!!  This cannot be stressed enough.  You will need documentation to prove future disciplinary actions if the conflicts cannot be resolved. 
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