Managing Workplace Conflict

By: Arun Subramanian

Conflict is a reality—whether in our personal lives or at work. The question is often not about how conflict can be eliminated, but how it can be proactively addressed and managed.

Whenever a group of people works together, there is a potential for conflict. It can occur for a variety of reasons and could be among employees or between customers or contractors and employees. The potential for conflict has been significantly exacerbated lately by several issues, including the impact of the pandemic, concerns about finances and job security, increasingly diverse workplaces, customer incivility, staffing shortages, and so much more. While our ability to mitigate some of these factors may be limited, there are things we can do to minimize conflict at work. Here are some tips to prevent or at least mitigate conflict amongst employees.

1. Establishing Common Cause Vision, Mission, Values

Having a clear, well-articulated vision/mission helps employees understand the larger objectives of the business. It allows them to recognize priorities and visualize their role in helping achieve them. If all employees are pulling in the same direction, the possibility of a dispute diminishes. Conversely, if people have differing or competing agendas, it dramatically increases the chances of conflict.

Values are also a critically important element in maintaining harmony in the workplace. For example, treating people with respect can be a core value of the business. Don’t just pay lip service to this with a statement on your website or in your Employee Handbook. It is critical that values don’t remain on paper alone—you need to walk the talk!

2. Hiring and Onboarding

It is important that candidates are screened using the company’s values. Bringing new employees on the team who already share the same values makes it easier for them to integrate into the workplace culture. Shared, similar values also help with on-the-job performance. If employees believe in the company’s vision, its mission, and values, they will be more amenable to doing what is asked of them.

Onboarding is also a necessary part of this process. Not only is it critical in helping new employees understand their roles and responsibilities, but it also helps them understand the culture—the “way it is usually done” is not necessarily mentioned in any employee manual or policy.

“Any hint of favouritism by supervisors can inflame the conflict.”

3. Conflict Resolution Mechanism

Having clear processes for handling conflicts is also very important. But what does this mean in practical terms? What does conflict resolution look like? The process should typically contain information on what an employee needs to do when they are involved in a dispute. It should outline the role of each employee in resolving the conflict, as well as the role of the supervisor/manager and human resources (if present). Also, these processes need to be shared out prior to any issue occurring. It is also really important that these processes are uniformly applied to all employees and situations—any hint of favouritism by supervisors can inflame the conflict, and make employees distrust the process.

4. Address Conflict Sooner Rather Than Later

Early intervention usually helps in resolving conflicts more easily. Unfortunately, oftentimes a simple disagreement can turn into a major issue if left for too long.
Addressing an issue as soon as it is observed helps keep tempers down and may help prevent employees from getting too emotional. It also stops employees from getting too attached to their positions, making resolution a little easier.

5. Communication

Clear communication at all stages helps to resolve a dispute. Having an unambiguous resolution process that all employees are aware of with supervisors who are willing to listen and management that values the importance of maintaining respect and civility in the workplace, will help to find a workable solution.

6. Training

Supervisors and managers should be provided with training in conflict handling and resolution, including de-escalation techniques. They should be familiar with the mechanism, especially given the myriad of interactions where conflict is possible. They should also be confident that management has their back—which will empower them to apply conflict resolution procedures without fear of failure.

Businesses need to be mindful of the potential for conflict and take proactive measures. Workplace conflict can significantly impact business outcomes and customer experience. It can also create a toxic work environment that in turn makes recruitment and retention of good staff harder. In a labour market where prospective employees value respectful workplaces, constant conflict can significantly tarnish an employer’s brand. Recognize that conflict can be a symptom of something else going on. Resolving conflict could be an opportunity to learn and consider alternatives to improve a situation.

If you are looking for additional assistance with your human resource needs, please feel free to reach out to us by email

Arun Subramanian is VP Industry Health & Safety, Human Resources at go2HR