How to deal with workplace conflict

How to deal with workplace conflict

18th March 2022, 11:25 am

ACAS estimates that workplace conflict costs UK organisations an average of £1,000 per employee and the CIPD reported in 2020 that 35% of employees have experienced some form of interpersonal conflict at work.  With more and more of people heading back to the office, workplace conflicts are expected to rise.

Workplace conflict can range from a minor difference of opinion to serious acts of harassment and discrimination.  Not only does it negatively impact those involved but it can also result in costly litigation by employees who resign or become ill because of a workplace conflict.  To date, the most expensive workplace conflict recorded cost the employer almost £4.5 million in compensation.  In addition to the compensation, employers may have to incur legal fees, spend valuable time on the litigation and can suffer serious reputational damage.

Avoiding conflict

The old adage that prevention is better than a cure remains true for workplace conflict.  As we spend a significant proportion of our life at work the impact of workplace conflicts can be profound, not just on the individuals directly involved, but on the wider team.  Workplace conflicts can increase staff turnover, cause sick absences and damage the productivity and the morale of the wider team.  Conversely, positive workplace relationships can greatly enhance a person’s work experience.  It is therefore important to know how to stop any conflict before it begins and to resolve any conflicts quickly and effectively.

All organisations should ideally have policies in place which deal with equal opportunities, discrimination and bullying and harassment.  However, it is not enough to just have policies, organisations must ensure that their staff know that they exist, are taken seriously and that action will be taken if they are breached.  Tribunals will readily hold an employer liable for an employee’s actions if it finds that an employer did not promote the relevant policies.

Build an inclusive, positive culture

Culture is an important part of preventing workplace conflict.  Senior managers are not only role models for other employees but they can set the tone for what is acceptable but they can foster a working environment where exchanging ideas and differences of opinion are responded to in ways which minimise conflict.

Most senior leaders are not trained in people management as it is viewed as a skill that develops with experience.  However, training senior staff in leadership can often benefit an organisation’s culture and workplace relations.  Helping to build an inclusive workplace culture can go a long way towards building positive workplace relations and avoiding damaging conflict.  The most common source of workplace conflict is a ‘lack of respect’.

All employers are required to have disciplinary and grievance policies in place and these should set out who an employee should contact if they wish to raise a grievance.  If a grievance is raised an early stage, whether formally or informally, and is dealt with appropriately it can stop a party becoming entrenched and the conflict is more likely to be resolved.  Failing to properly respond to a grievance could result in a loss of confidence in the organisation and may result in other employees feeling less able to come forward with their concerns.

Regular and constructive meetings with employees can also avoid conflict as these can be used to set expected standards and understand concerns before they escalate.  Such meetings can also help an employee build up trust so that they feel able to come forward with any concerns.

Identify conflict

It is inevitable that some employees will feel unable to raise their concerns so managers should be aware of behaviour that could signify a problem.  Indicators can include people being excluded from social events, people being cut-off in meetings or being rude.  Anonymous surveys can also be a useful way of helping employers identify cultural and interpersonal conflicts.

Resolving conflict

The nature and severity of the conflict will determine how the conflict should be resolved.  Serious forms of bullying or harassment may be a disciplinary matter.  However, for less serious conflicts, initially a manager may prefer to talk to the people concerned individually.  People often find it difficult to discuss emotional matters so it can help to hold a virtual meeting or go for a coffee away from their immediate workspace.  Once you know the source of the conflict it is easier to see how it can be resolved.

Mediation can often be a valuable way of resolving workplace disputes.  This involves bringing the two sides together to discuss their concerns.  The mediator acts as a facilitator and helps the parties work out their difficulties and find a solution.  An experienced and neutral manager can act as a mediator or it may be more appropriate to bring in a professional mediator, particularly if there are concerns about impartiality.

Once the conflict has been resolved remember to check in with the parties to avoid a relapse.

If you need a professional third party mediator Ward Hadaway have a team of specialists waiting to assist.

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