Getting past the personal stuff

Smaller conflicts between employees may just lead to larger problems
By Adina Lipsett
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/13/2012

Employees bring a wide variety of personal characteristics and life experiences to the workplace. Regrettably, some of those differences can impact employee relationships and, more importantly, job performance and company productivity outcomes.

While there is no way of listing all the personal issues that may negatively permeate a workplace, some may include: a colleague’s divorce, different conflict styles, varying work ethics and styles, a chatty colleague or difficult personalities.

And there are signs conflicts are at play, such as people falling behind in their work, decreased productivity, resentment among staff or increased absenteeism. Other indications include silences in conversation when a person walks into a room, colleagues no longer taking breaks together or requests to adjust employment expectations to avoid a co-worker on a team.

Business benchmarks that would demonstrate signs of distress include decreases in retention and subsequent increases in recruitment efforts, decreasing sales, a falling customer base or an increase in customer complaints.

When the underlying issues are not addressed, a workplace can become a hostile environment riddled with conflict, decreased camaraderie and a lot of missed work time — and even increased medical leave claims.

So what can HR do to correct the presenting issues influencing the bottom line? Ultimately, the focus should be on the impact on the business, not the specific personal issues.

Strategy needed to normalize situation

Once the discord has been confirmed, the next step is to identify a strategy to normalize the situation. If employees are not able to work it out on their own, a manager can initiate a fact-finding investigation into the perceived conflict to determine how best to resolve it. Management may bring in employees for individual meetings, resulting in a joint meeting between the parties directly involved.

HR’s expertise will contribute to the process and when issues grow and are affecting the bottom line — including more complex policy interpretation or the potential for legal consequences, such as sexual harassment allegations — they should quickly be addressed.

Resolution begins with a facilitated discussion among the parties involved in the conflict. A basic problem-solving method would be sufficient in most cases. The first step is to define a clear and accurate problem statement. The parties then develop the means of assessing the various solutions they will create.

A list is generated through brainstorming and writing down any and all scenarios presented, which are then compared to the assessment standards previously created. A solution is chosen and implemented, with followup to see if it has resolved the issue.

Escalating situations may require a more formal process, such as mediation. The technique is similar to a basic problem-solving method. However, an important component is the management of emotions that emerge during the process.

Jealousy, resentment and other feelings must be identified and discussed. Paraphrasing and rephrasing are effective techniques in drawing out feelings and initiating discussion. While there are facts involved, which mediation focuses on to resolve the issue, handling the emotions involved in personal conflicts between staff is imperative to resolution.

Binding arbitration may be another process to consider if issues escalate but it would only apply in extreme situations.

Admittedly, implementing disciplinary procedures is not always easy. However, fundamental to success is determining the “what” and “why” of the issue.

For instance, there may be two employees who no longer want to share an office but their employment tasks are related. The key is to understand why each of them feels that way. Perhaps the male employee is feeling sexual inappropriateness from the female colleague or maybe one of the staff members slept with the other’s wife or is homosexual and the other male staff is uncomfortable with this.

The key is to address this underlying issue, the “why,” in order to resolve the “what.”

Determining an employee’s conflict style is another tool that can be helpful. Once identified, the manager or HR professional can investigate the characteristics of each style and the best way to negotiate between the two.

For instance, if one worker’s conflict style is avoidance and the other’s is aggressive, the “avoider” may agree to anything in an effort to end the dispute, even if he does not really agree.

On the surface, it may look like the issue has been resolved but since it has not been resolved for the avoider, resentments will develop and the impact of the issue will increase, perhaps creating a more hostile environment, with other staff taking sides. It can even lead to the loss of that staff member.

Sometimes outside experts needs to be consulted, such as professionals with expertise in conflict resolution. They can be hired on a contractual basis to supplement the HR team and work together to create a conflict resolution design tailored for that particular workplace, reducing or minimizing business loss.

Counsellors or psychologists can also be invited into the work environment to assist HR in its endeavours.

The management of individuals in any realm has never been an exact science. While it may sound cold, the bottom line is protecting the organization and assisting employees is part of reaching that goal. Effective intervention is the key to resolving issues, whether personal or work-related, through HR involvement.

Adina Lipsett is CEO of ACRS (Adian Collaborative Resolution Services) in Fredericton. She can be reached at (506) 446-5040 or For more information, visit

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