Lora Patterson is senior HR advisor at TriNetZenefits. Views are the author's own.
In an ideal workplace, there would be no conflicts, but anyone who has worked in an office knows this isn't always the case. With a variety of personalities and different work styles, it can be an amazing experience when teams are cohesive, but if organizations are not aligned, it can be the cause of conflict resulting in misunderstandings, personality conflicts, and poor communication. Additionally, remote work has created another level of communication with coworkers that can require a new level of diplomacy to navigate.
About 75% of employers think their organization is doing enough to both manage and prevent conflict between people at work, and almost the same proportion agree that it has effective procedures for resolving interpersonal conflict, according to CIPD. The question we have to ask ourselves, then, is "Do employees think we are doing enough?"
So, when should HR step in?
There is often a belief that employees should either work things out themselves or their managers should handle conflict disputes. This can be the solution if employees feel comfortable discussing issues with each other and coming to a joint resolution. A manager that feels confident handling conflicts between employees may step in as a neutral third party.
However, there are scenarios where HR mediation is explicitly recommended:
- Not seeing eye-to-eye: If employees are not getting along for a variety of reasons, and their manager is at a loss for what steps to take, then it's probably time to loop in your HR department.
- Tension and preferential treatment: Alternatively, if two employees are not getting along and one feels like the manager prefers the other employee over them, then this employee will want a neutral party, like HR, to step in and assist.
- Neutral voice of reason: Oftentimes, employees have issues with their manager and they don't feel confident addressing these directly with said manager. This can include feeling like they don't get a lot of direction/feedback, they don't feel valued, or they feel like other employees' needs are put above their own. This would be a great time for these employees to talk with HR and work on a solution together. HR can also mediate between the employee and their manager to ensure both parties are on the same page.
- Avoiding bias: Another common situation is when managers or directors from different departments are not getting along. Similar to the other scenarios, these employees may feel like their VP or owner is playing favorites or may not be the best person to assist. HR can step in to be that third party who can remain neutral and offer solutions without bias.
Why is this important?
Conflict does not happen in a vacuum. Everyone who interacts or hears about issues is affected. Eventually, this leads to internal conflict and tension within the organization because people feel pulled into taking sides. As a result, this decreases morale and increases employee turnover. Additionally, 34% of workplace conflict is a result of workplace stress, one report showed. Internal conflict can also make employees lose respect and trust for their leaders who should have a better pulse of what's happening in the office. It costs approximately 20% of a salary to replace a lost worker, further proving the necessity that companies show they value employees by providing conflict-free work environments.
Managers should understand when they should handle issues and when they should loop in HR. Employees should also understand that HR is there to be a neutral presence and they can always turn to their HR department for assistance.
The guiding principle: If employees feel more comfortable asking HR to help, then that option should be available to them.
Mediation best practices
Every situation is different, but in all cases, first confirm both parties are willing to meet and that they are open to hearing from the other side in order to find a solution. Next, ensure that the mediator (HR) is not biased and remains neutral throughout this process. It's important both parties can trust that their side will be taken seriously and their feelings will be seen as valid.
Depending on the situation, HR may want to have one-on-one meetings with each employee before having a group discussion. This would allow the employees to explain their side of the conflict. During this meeting, employees should provide specific examples that contributed to this conflict and why it upset them. The goal is to identify root issues that can be resolved in your group meeting, without creating an exhaustive list.
Set ground rules and expectations for the group meeting. These should include being respectful and allowing each other to express their feelings and opinions about past occurrences. HR should also clarify its intent to ensure both sides are heard without bias, and its goal to facilitate a positive discussion that leads to actionable items which will hopefully resolve the conflict.
Each party should have the option of reviewing their side of the story uninterrupted, with HR interjecting only when the conversation gets off track and becomes unproductive. Once both parties have shared their side of the story, and parties understand the origination of the conflict, the group can brainstorm solutions that may work to resolve those issues and determine how each party can contribute to the solution. As a final step, HR should schedule time to meet with both parties to assess whether or not proposed solutions have settled matters, and readdress if problems are ongoing.
Resolving conflict in the workplace should be a top priority for organizations and knowing when to involve HR is essential. Nearly 80% of workers reported conflict leading to positive results, such as improved approaches to problems, deeper insights about colleagues and innovation. If employees don't feel comfortable coming into work because of the conflict within their team, then that should be taken seriously. Employees need to feel like HR is a reliable trustworthy source they can go for advice and problem-solving techniques.