How to Handle Workplace Conflicts When Returning to the Office (Free Conflict Resolution Form)

Workplace conflicts are unavoidable. Here’s how to deal with them quickly, effectively, and professionally.

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Best practices for conflict resolution

As employees return to the workplace after months of remote work or time off, there will be hiccups as they get back to routine. Workplace conflicts are inevitable: wherever you have more than one person you have the potential for disagreement — either professionally or personally. Business leaders understand conflict costs money and talent. Managing conflict in the workplace may be a least favorite task, but it’s critical to do so quickly and effectively.

The “If I ignore it long enough maybe it will go away” school of thought doesn’t work to resolve conflict. More than likely, business will end up losing one or both of the staffers involved. Worse, ignoring the conflict between specific employees tells others you’re not interested in a positive working environment. The fallout can be a loss in staff, morale, and productivity. Conflicts can sometimes lead to harassment complaints and lawsuits. Dealing with conflicts before they escalate is necessary to maintain a professional environment and protect your business.

Ignoring the conflict between specific employees tells others you’re not interested in a positive working environment. The fallout can be a loss in staff, morale, and productivity.

How costly is workplace conflict?

One study, CPP’s Global Human Capital Report, puts the cost of workplace conflict at over $350 billion for business each year. The data found employees typically spend over 2 and a half hours per week dealing with conflict. Gallup’s State of the American Workplace study found many reasons for workplace conflict — the top 3:

31% of managers believed they were skilled at managing workplace conflict: unfortunately, only 22% of staffers felt their manager had that skill set.

Returning to work after the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic may amplify the stress and workload issues that already resulted in conflict. Twenty-five percent of employees polled by Gallup revealed avoiding conflict led to sickness or absence from work, yet another stress that could be exacerbated by the pandemic. Almost 10% reported workplace conflict led to project failure, and more than 1/3 said conflict resulted in someone leaving the company, voluntarily or involuntarily.

But when it comes to managing conflict, there is a disconnect. The CCP study found 31% of managers believed they were skilled at managing workplace conflict: unfortunately, only 22% of staffers felt their manager had that skill set.

Creating a space for resolution 

Managing conflict in the workplace is key to a professional, productive environment. It begins with creating an atmosphere where employees are enabled and encouraged to seek assistance when conflicts occur. Rather than a culture of complaining about coworkers, conflict management policies and procedures create a culture of resolution that assures the best possible outcomes for all parties involved.

An open door policy to deal with conflicts is necessary. When managers see a conflict occurring, they should intervene to help resolve. Where managers don’t see conflict, employees should be comfortable asking for assistance. Promoting conflict management provides employees with the help they need to turn the conflict around. Remember the goal isn’t to punish employees — unless they’ve committed a serious infraction like harassment or threatening a coworker — but to resolve the situation.

Hearing a conflict complaint 

When a conflict comes to your attention, either something witnessed or reported, there are some best practices to follow. You may talk to the staffer directly or ask them to complete a form that outlines the complaint, and how management can help remedy the situation.

Download our sample conflict resolution form.

Read through a completed form or use the template as a guide for your discussion to get a full picture of the nature of the complaint and how they hope you can help resolve it.

After discussing the complaint with the employee, you will need to hear the other staff member’s perspective on the situation. As with all investigations, first steps are for gathering information — not making judgments or determinations. Early discussions should be separate, with each staffer free to speak openly. Inform the employee you will look into the issue and remind them not to discuss the complaint with the other staff member during the investigation.

Some conflicts will be quantifiable: my coworker doesn’t do their share of the work, or my manager assigns me the most challenging tasks. Others will be more subjective: my coworker is rude to me, and doesn’t want to get along with me. Initial conversations should be about specifics. What is the workload in question; what types of behaviors are being exhibited?

Gathering data

Once initial information has been gathered, you’ll want to hear the other person’s point of view. Their response will likely be one of 3 things:

  • Admit the behavior/issue
  • Deny the behavior/issue, or
  • Oppose the complaint and offer a different perspective on the situation.

Your job will be to hear this employee’s point of view, using the same template for their written response or as a guide to use in an in-person discussion. Remind the employee you’re collecting information at this stage, not assigning blame. They should also not discuss the situation with their coworker during this initial phase.

You may need assistance from a direct manager: if workload is at issue, the manager may be able to provide insight into any discrepancies. One employee may not know their colleague has additional duties they perform, justifying a lighter portion of the day-to-day work. In these cases, have a discussion with all parties to clarify workload and expectations.

Managing resolution

Resolving conflicts can be complex, but manageable. Keeping the discussion professional is key. The objective is to come to some resolution that works for both parties. Be careful and take a positive path to achieve that goal.

Positive path to conflict resolution

  • Accept concern as legitimate
  • Clarify both parties’ point of view to understand it fully
  • Choose course of action that meets everyone’s needs
  • Follow up/adjust if needed

Negative path to conflict resolution

  • React to concern (anger)
  • Assign blame
  • Ignore or allow conflict to escalate
  • Lose one or more employee

To resolve an issue, both parties will need to be professional and open to discussion and suggestions. Your job will be to guide the conversation to help both staffers understand each other’s point of view, accept views as legitimate, and work toward a resolution.

Pathways to resolutions

Compete: Is there a way for employees to turn differences into a healthy competition? Workload issues, for example, could become professional challenges rather than points of concern.

Collaborate: Is it possible for employees to work collaboratively to achieve resolution? If staff members feel their work is being undermined or underappreciated, collaborating on projects might provide more insight into the other’s contribution.

Compromise: Is there a way both parties can meet in the middle? If the situation involves stressful customers, for example, possibly alternate who takes on the next troublesome client.

Accommodate: If the problem is more significant to one staffer than the other, is it possible to accommodate their needs?  If filing is problematic for one worker, but not an issue for another, you may be able to reassign the work to resolve the conflict.

Avoid: Is there no way to work together? If avoidance is the only resolution, look for ways both staffers be retained without needing to interface on a routine basis.

Personality clashes may be the most challenging to overcome. For some reason, some employees just don’t mix. Their work or personal styles make it difficult to get along at best, stressful at worst. For personality clashes, look for a solution that stays professional and accepting. Agree to disagree may be a cliché, but it can work for some clashes. If possible, get employees to see they’re both working toward the same goal, but with differing paths to get there.

Avoiding conflict escalation 

When conflicts are ignored, they have no path but up. The more you hope they’ll resolve on their own, the less likely that will occur. The best practice is to deal with them before they escalate to a point of no return. You’ve invested time and resources hiring staff members; you don’t want to lose them over issues that can be resolved.

Getting employees comfortable enough to ask for help, or intervening where you see help is needed is necessary to keep your workplace professional and productive.

Getting employees comfortable enough to ask for help, or intervening where you see help is needed is necessary to keep your workplace professional and productive. It starts with a policy that’s clear and communicated widely to employees. Your workplace conflict policy should outline how damaging workplace conflicts can be to the organization and how stressful they can be to staff members. Include:  .

  • Conflict resolution is aimed at resolving differences, not punishing employees
  • Request staff work out small issues/differences quickly and directly if possible
  • For sensitive issues or those that haven’t been resolved directly, ask for manager or HR assistance

When workplace conflicts are resolved quickly and professionally, workers gain an understanding of their colleagues that builds trust and strengthens relationships. It may be unpleasant, but managing conflict is worthwhile for business and staff members.

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