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How to resolve workplace conflict

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BenefitsPro spoke with Jason Carney on how to resolve stress-related workplace conflicts.

Read more from BenefitsPro:

Resolving employee conflicts takes HR leadership

With the stress that today’s work force is facing, employee conflicts are arising more often. In many situations, fewer employees are around, and the workload is higher, which can lead to uncomfortable professional environments and more employee conflicts, says Jason Carney, director of human resources at WorkSmart Systems Inc.

“A lot of employee conflicts are simply stress related,” Carney says. “When things are going great, you tend to not notice the little nitpicky details of maybe your cube mate or the person who sits across the way, but when the wheels start coming off, that’s when things start getting a little hairy.”

Employees should be trained in using effective communication skills to first solve these issues; however, sometimes, it is inevitable for HR to become involved, says Jackie Greaner, senior consultant in the talent management group at Towers Watson. Employees don’t have the same training as HR professionals do, and it can take an objective third party to solve the issue.

“HR has the background and experience in team effectiveness, performance issues and performance management as well as conflict resolution,” Greaner says. “HR generally has that skill set, and then HR also brings an objective point of view.”

Under HR’s supervision, both parties should be brought together in an effort to participate in active listening, Greaner says. Carney recommends having both parties first agree there is a problem, and then repeat the opposing side’s issues.

“There needs to be a forum for open discussion that’s not threatening to either individual,” Greaner says. “HR should be available for both teams and put together an explicit agenda and ground rules to discuss the issues without any fear of reprisal or any concerns for retribution.”

To create this sort of environment, Carney suggests having both parties explain how the problems affect the business with neutral, nonthreatening phrases, such as, “I get bothered when,” rather than, “You frustrate me when.” This keeps the focus on the business, which makes both parties less likely to get defensive.

“Anytime you can tie their behavior back to how it affects the business, you’re never going to lose,” Carney says. “Instead of saying, ‘Your cell phone ringer drives me crazy,’ you need to frame it from the perspective of, ‘Every time your cell phone rings, it distracts me from my work,’™ or ‘It’s overheard with a phone conversation I’m having with a client,’ so it doesn’t look like they’re attacking one another.”

After both parties express their issues, they need to come up with a resolution together, Greaner says. If both parties are involved with this critical step, the resolution is more likely to stick.

“Resolving the problem together ensures that all parties have accountability to that solution,” Greaner says. “It shows that they understand the solution; they agree to the solution. With that understanding and agreement, then they are more likely to abide by that resolution.”

But once a resolution is decided upon, the process isn’t over, Carney says. The HR department and managers should continue to monitor the situation and plan for follow-up meetings to make sure both parties are still happy with the resolution. Although both parties may be temporarily happy, the attitude can change quickly.

“These conflicts sneak up on you,” Carney says. “Even the most observant managers and HR professionals are busier than they have ever have been, and while you like to think you can see these problems coming, you really have to be alert, stay focused and talk to your team on a regular basis about how everything is going. You just need to be overly sensitive to the many conflicts that come up before they blow up.”

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