Settling Workplace Disputes

Dealing with workplace disputes isn’t fun for anyone. But disputes happen, and as a leader, it’s vital to create a workplace where everyone feels supported. When left unchecked, even minor workplace disputes can snowball to create a toxic environment.

You can expect to encounter disputes involving personality clashes, miscommunication, and confusion over job responsibilities. On the more serious end of things, there might be instances of bullying or sexual harassment in the workplace.

For any workplace dispute, it is critical to handle the situation quickly and efficiently so that it doesn’t derail the team. Here’s how:

1. Encourage employees to resolve the dispute on their own.

It’s common for managers to first learn about problems when an employee approaches them. In most situations, it’s best to start off by encouraging the employee to resolve it without your active involvement. Getting involved in every conflict can seem like playing favorites while setting the unreasonable expectation that you will be mediating every dispute. You want to set an expectation that employees try their best to resolve problems independently.

Offer employees advice on how best to approach the situation, but otherwise, keep your involvement limited. In many cases, this will be sufficient to resolve the problem.

2. When mediating, be an active listener and allow aggrieved parties to explain the problem in their own words.

Sometimes, it will be necessary to intervene as a mediator and hold a formal mediation session. Always begin by allowing each party to describe the situation from their perspective. Everyone should have the opportunity to speak without being interrupted.

Ask employees to begin by sticking to the facts before going into how the situation makes them feel. When they speak, don’t interfere except to guide the discussion back towards facts as necessary.

While this exercise in and of itself may not be enough to resolve the conflict, it helps to establish a common ground for discussion.

3. After listening to all parties, take a step back and try to diagnose the real problem.

Oftentimes the underlying reason for a conflict isn’t the problem that employees think they need to resolve. Without identifying the core root of the conflict, you won’t be able to implement a fully effective solution. As you listen to employees’ testimony, do your best to deduce what the actual problem is.

Once you think you have a diagnosis, refocus the conversation towards more productive directions. Ask questions that push employees to recognize what the real problem is and start brainstorming potential fixes.

4. Pay attention to how your employees respond to a confrontational situation, and respond appropriately.

People can respond very differently to confrontation. To effectively mediate, you need to understand the parties involved and approach them in the right way. Some tips for approaching different kinds of responses:

  • If an employee is silent, encourage them to open up. Make it clear that you want to understand rather than punish.
  • If an employee is emotionally distraught, refrain from having an in-depth conversation until they are more collected.
  • If an employee is angry, keep your cool. Use facts to explain why there is a problem, avoiding accusations of blame.
  • If an employee is apologetic, accept their apologies. But make sure that they actually understand the underlying issue and isn’t just telling you what they think you want to hear.

5. Consult the employee handbook as necessary. Remind parties about company guidelines regarding the treatment of coworkers.

There is a social contract that all employees must abide by, conduct guidelines established by the employee handbooks. Using the handbook to guide the mediation process helps establish level playing ground. It allows managers to assume the position of simply enforcing the rules rather than passing arbitrary judgments.

The handbook should define inappropriate conduct, which you can use to guide employees towards a resolution. For example, you might read the company’s definition of harassment in the workplace. If the handbook suggests steps for resolving a conflict, follow them closely.

6. Ask each party to explain what they’d like to see happen in order to resolve the problem.

Once the problem has been explained, it’s time to start talking about solutions. Each party should have a turn to suggest three to four changes they’d like to see happen as a result of the mediation process. Encourage employees to be very specific: “I will receive a weekly email updating me on the status of the project from now until completion, with our manager cc’d.”

7. Help employees create a “contract” that defines the relationship, including the responsibilities that each party has towards the other.

Now that there’s a plan of action, ask your employees to commit it to writing. It should take the form of a contract that outlines each party’s responsibilities towards the other person. Like other contracts, this contract should include provisions for what happens if terms are breached. Ask employees to sign the contract so that it feels official.

Keep a copy of the contract for yourself. This can serve as useful documentation if the problem escalates.

8. Schedule a time to review how the situation has progressed.

You should hold another meeting with the employees after a reasonable period of time has passed. In this meeting, ask employees to review the contract. Has the contract been upheld faithfully? If not, why? Has the contract successfully resolved the original conflict?

If there are still lingering issues, talk about what tweaks can be made to the contract to improve the situation.

9. When necessary, take formal disciplinary measures. Always involve HR in these discussions.

Unfortunately, the mediation process previously outlined won’t resolve every problem. If you’ve gone through multiple meetings without seeing significant progress, it may be time to institute formal discipline.

Talk to the situation to someone from HR. They can take the lead in outlining appropriate measures, and an HR representative should be present at all disciplinary meetings.

Hopefully, you can mitigate the situation before it reaches this point. But if need be, HR is there to offer support.

Summing Up

Workplace disputes are bound to happen, but there are many ways you can go about resolving them. The key is to be able to listen and keep an impartial judgment when trying to iron out a solution that would work well for both parties.