Conflict is inevitable wherever people gather. When that happens in the workplace, employees expect to be able to turn for HR for help. But a recent study shows that workers don't have much confidence in the department's ability to help.
Employees cited resolving disputes as HR's primary function in a recent Paychex poll. But many took issue with how their HR department handles employee disputes, according to the study. And that can drastically affect a company's bottom line: the cost to employers in lost productivity is estimated to be about $359 billion annually.
But for many HR professionals, dispute resolution is a low priority with their full workload, at least until the situation becomes dire. Additionally, few HR professionals have been fully trained in dispute resolution, so the problem continues to grow.
Why is dispute resolution so difficult?
Dispute resolution at work is hard for several reasons.
First, employees have high standards for their HR departments. Paychex found that employees expect HR to be able to deal with racism, sexism and workplace safety issues, according to Dorene Crimi Lerner, HR Consultant with the company.
"There’s always been a bit of a disconnect with employees thinking HR is there to be their ally," she said. "But if you ask any HR professional, they'll tell you that their role is to protect the company they work for." Naturally, this dichotomy can create tension when it comes to the topic of dispute resolution, Crimi Lerner noted.
In addition, disputes often snowball, until they're huge issues. Fran Sepler, president of Sepler & Associates, recently designed two "respectful workplace" training programs for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Small disputes are like toothpaste," she said. "If you spill a little toothpaste and you clean it up right away, it is no big deal, but if you don’t get it right away, it gets harder and harder to the point where you practically need a chisel to get rid of it."
"Dispute resolution is hard because we are afraid of wrecking our relationships," Sepler added. But instead of avoiding unpleasantness in the short-term, we "need to learn to lean into the discomfort of sorting out conflicts and understanding that discomfort is what makes us thoughtful and careful about how we proceed.”
The real cost of conflict
Even the smallest disputes have a major effect on the employee's productivity, according to Rebecca Armacost, executive director of the Mediation Training Institute at Eckerd College.
“There is increasing evidence that stress and unresolved conflict are directly associated with many physical issues," she said. "If we don't resolve the dispute, just thinking about the issue can trigger tension, which can lead to more cortisol. Sustained high levels of cortisol have been associated with insomnia, metabolism challenges, weight gain, hair and skin issues, as well as more serious issues like Alzheimer's disease, heart issues and diabetes.”
While some conflict can be valuable — opening the door for discussions and innovation — the potential ramifications for the bottom line and employee health show that HR must be properly trained in conflict resolution.
But managers need to be trained, too, Armacost noted. Conflict resolution is a core leadership quality, which means that calling in HR or another third-party mediator should be the last step, after employees have tried to sort out a disagreement themselves and after a manager has tried to intervene.
Training for all other employees is important, too, she said. Strategic team-building sessions can help head off large disputes. Allowing employees to get to know each other in a casual, low-pressure environment opens the doors to a heightened sense of community.
However, the session must incorporate strategic conversations about each person’s goals, roles and behavior. Allowing people the space to learn about and agree upon the team's and individual’s objectives and responsibilities is critical to lessening future misunderstandings, according to Armacost. The session also should include a discussion on how the team will manage conflict when it begins. This should include an activity that allows each person to describe his or her typical conflict behaviors in a non-threatening way, she said.
The cost of disputes runs the gamut from lower productivity to increased turnover and healthcare costs. And if conflict crosses the line into bullying or violence, that creates even worse issues. But HR can — and is expected to — be prepared.
“Conflict is inevitable," Armacost said, but "learning to manage it proactively is a critical leadership competency.”