While we would all like to go on with our workday in peace, the uncomfortable truth is that workplace conflict is inevitable. Generally, organisations will hire staff based on their talent and capabilities, not their personality. This means that a single company could as many personalities working for them as there are stars in the sky. With this many different types of people, confrontations can and will eventually happen.

Conflict in the workplace is divisive and can lead to reduced productivity and morale. As such, conflict should be managed and resolved wherever possible. Conflict itself can be any workplace disagreement that disrupts the workflow. It is often a situation in which people perceive a threat; they may perceive this threat as physical, emotional, or a grab for power or status. It’s usually a gut feeling, not necessarily a specific threat that occurs. This can sometimes make it very hard to spot.

Another component of conflict is: responses are based on perceptions of a situation, rather than an objective view. This means that conflict can arise because of ones perception of the situation regardless of the intent. It is therefore paramount all communication is clear and concise so as to minimise any misunderstandings which can lead to conflict.

The first steps in handling workplace conflict belong, in most cases, to the employees who are at odds with one another. The employer’s role, which is generally exercised by managers and HR professionals, is significant, but is usually grounded in the development of a workplace culture designed to prevent conflict among employees to the extent possible. However, this does not mean HR should not get involved at all when a confrontation occurs.

When conflict does occur, an organisation may be faced with a number of negative effects; including:

  • Lost productivity
  • Poor employee health
  • Potential accidents
  • Risk of litigation
  • Increased turnover
  • Potential for theft, violence, or sabotage
  • Wasted time
  • Absenteeism

The HR team will usually have a leadership responsibility to develop and implement workplace conflict policies and procedures and to create and manage conflict-resolution programs. HR professionals often become involved in settling workplace conflicts, particularly if the employees and their supervisors cannot achieve a resolution. In many instances, however, HR does not learn of workplace conflict until differences have escalated. HR professionals must be made aware of workplace tensions before they grow into larger problems.

When made aware of a confrontational situation, there are a number of ways that HR can de-escalate the issue. Most of these conflict resolutions will come in the form of achieving a mutually beneficial outcome. Several useful conflict resolution practices include:

Emphasize Clarity and Consistency in Policies and Procedures

Ensure that the company leaders share the thinking behind the company’s approaches and decisions.

Ensure Accountability for Conflict Resolution

Ensure all employees, not just managers or HR, are accountable for resolving conflict. Managers don’t have to take care of every issue. The employees involved need to be part of the solution.

Don’t Ignore the Conflict

While there are some cases where short-term avoidance is part of the long-term solution (especially for minor issues), in general, avoiding conflict won’t fix anything.

Seek to Understand

More often than not, conflicts are fuelled by emotion, and HR and managers need to understand what is going on at the root of the problem.

Recognize Different Circumstances

Different circumstances and different approaches to conflict can make a huge difference, and sometimes simply recognising what is going on is the first step towards resolution. It can also be a great way to learn about one another.


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