Managing people

How to resolve employee conflicts

Effectively dealing with conflict in your workplace will ensure you minimise potential legal risks and impacts on workplace culture. A factual, non-judgemental approach is the best way forward.

5 June 2023

From time to time, conflicts arise in the workplace. From the perspective of a business owner or manager, it can be hard to know how and when to intervene.

Nicole Davidson, from Nicole Davidson Negotiation, believes in a “sooner-is-better” approach.

“If you leave it alone, then it can escalate because when there is existing conflict between two people, the tendency is to go looking for more problems,” she says.

“Particularly in a small business, any conflict can have a big impact, and not just on the people involved. There’s inevitably spillage into the broader team and working environment.”

William Woodbury, workplace relations adviser at Australian Business Lawyers & Advisors, says, on the one hand, encouraging employees to independently address mild conflicts and disagreements can be valuable for fostering team morale and self-management. However, waiting too long may expose employees to heightened stress levels, thereby increasing the risk of physical and psychological harm. Impacts on the business include increased staff turnover, absenteeism, and decreased overall performance, while there are also legal risks, particularly with new regulations requiring employers to manage psychosocial hazards like they would physical ones.

Mr Woodbury says that while sometimes it’s clear there is a conflict, other times it’s about looking for signs. These include a decrease in workplace productivity, changes in behaviour such as a drop in engagement, absenteeism such as frequent tardiness, or increased sick leave.

“Recognising these signs and taking appropriate action can contribute to a healthier work environment and facilitate the prompt resolution of conflicts,” he says.

How to resolve a conflict

Ms Davidson says the first step in any resolution is to speak to each party privately and establish what’s going on. The key here is to focus on facts.

“Go in open-minded, without making assumptions. That way, no one feels like they’re being attacked,” she explains.

Sometimes, people don’t completely open up about the problem the first time around – so it’s fine to have more than one meeting. If this process goes well, then Ms Davidson says the next step is to offer guidance or coaching.

“There are different perspectives in a conflict. For example, one person might think that the other took their lunch from the fridge on purpose. The other person might explain that their partner packed their lunch for them, and they genuinely made a mistake about which one was theirs. In that case, understanding the other person’s perspective and receiving an apology might be enough to resolve the conflict,” she says.

Again, Ms Davidson says to be mindful of how you approach these conversations – in particular, trying to raise self-awareness of the situation rather than telling the person, which can lead to them getting defensive. So, for example, rather than telling someone their communication is too abrupt, ask them to think about how they made the other person feel when they told them to go away because they were too busy.

If the problem is larger and is bordering on bullying or harassment, then it’s time to get outside help – a neutral person from within the business, or an outside expert.

“You might not have the skills to deal with these kinds of serious workplace issues, and it can help to have an outsider to unpack it all,” she says.

What if it doesn’t go smoothly?

While having effective conflict resolution practices and addressing issues early does mitigate the potential for conflicts to spiral out of control, there are times when conflict resolution doesn’t work. For example, one party is not agreeing to the process, or they continue to repeat the same behaviour, or they’re not receptive to coaching to help them improve their behaviour.

Mr Woodbury says that when employees do not respond, the initial step should be to conduct a comprehensive reassessment of the existing dispute resolution plan and ensure that all relevant avenues have been considered.

From here, one strategy is to look for an alternative role for someone that minimises contact with the person they’re in conflict with. However, this is not feasible for every workplace – especially when it’s a smaller business with limited numbers of employees. In this case, a workplace might need assertive performance management.

“This includes explicitly communicating the expectations for communication moving forward to all parties involved and monitoring their adherence to ensure productivity,” Mr Woodbury says.

“This is not ideal and emphasises the importance of proactively implementing effective conflict resolution plans before their escalation.”

Having procedures in place

Mr Woodbury concludes that having effective strategies in place “can significantly enhance employee communication and comprehension” of conflict resolution.

“Moreover, proficient conflict resolution practices play a pivotal role in cultivating trust and promoting safety within the workplace. When employees are confident that their concerns will be attentively heard, they feel more secure and at ease expressing their thoughts and opinions,” he says.

Need help?

For help with putting these strategies in place, have a look at My Business Workplace. The extensive library of templates and documents includes this policy on conflict and personal relationships in the workplaces.

YOUR HR SIDEKICK

My Business Workplace includes pre-approved contracts, policies, letters, checklists and so much more from award-winning law firm Australian Business Lawyers and Advisors (ABLA). From contracts of employment to letters of termination and everything in between, we've got you covered.

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