Workplace conflict on the rise: Survey

Effective management style can diminish problems
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/12/2011

Conflict is on the rise in the workplace and negatively affecting productivity and absenteeism, according to a survey released by the Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines agréés (CRHA), Quebec’s HR association.

Seventy-nine per cent of 540 salaried employees surveyed across Quebec said they often or occasionally witnessed a conflict in their workplace in the last year, up from 36 per cent in a similar survey in 2006.

“We’re seeing an increase in the percentage of conflicts in the workplace — a significant increase,” said Florent Francoeur, president and CEO of CRHA. “It also means when you have a conflict and you don’t try to resolve it, you really have a problem there.”

Conflict can present itself in many ways in the workplace but the most common is among colleagues, said Francoeur. This can take the form of physical issues, such as someone speaking too loudly while on the phone, or emotional issues, such as disagreeing about how to tackle a problem or a project, he said.

There are also varying degrees of conflict severity employers need to be aware of, said Ruth Sirman, president of CanMediate International in Almonte, Ont.

“Workplace conflict can be a minor disagreement between two co-workers or it can be a debilitating, major dysfunction that means when I see you coming into the building in the morning, I call in sick,” said Sirman. “We need to be aware of what we’re dealing with.”

Forty-nine per cent of survey respondents said certain conflicts had adversely affected their performance, compared to 24 per cent in 2006.

“There’s a lack of productivity, so there’s no sharing of information, things don’t move forward and the stress levels go up,” said Monika Jensen, a principal at Aviary Group, a workplace conflict consulting firm in Toronto. “Very often, if people do come to work, they’re just not there; they’re mentally absent.”

The effect on performance extends beyond those directly involved in the conflict, said Jensen. It often has a ripple effect and it doesn’t take very long for other employees to get involved, resulting in distractions going up and productivity going down, she said.

“It can actually start to ripple outside of the organization where clients begin to realize something is wrong and it just continues to escalate,” said Sirman. “The longer you let it go, the bigger it gets, the more it’s going to take to solve it.”

Another consequence of workplace conflict is absenteeism. Employees may become physically sick or experience burnout from the stress surrounding the conflict, or they may call in sick to avoid an unpleasant situation, said Francoeur.

Management plays a crucial role in handling workplace conflict, found the survey. More than two-thirds (68 per cent) of respondents said they had often witnessed conflicts when management did not take action to resolve them, compared to 32 per cent in cases where management did take action.

“There is a huge difference when you have a workplace where the managers are there and want to avoid any kind of conflict compared to a place where people don’t care about conflict,” said Francoeur. “When you don’t care about conflict, you will have more conflict.”

Management should be trained on how to properly handle workplace conflict and be aware of what resources are available to them as well as their employees, said Sirman.

When there is a conflict, a manager should address the issue quickly and be as neutral as possible, said Francoeur. He should sit down with both parties involved and hear both sides of the story. Then, he should work with them to come up with a way to resolve the conflict, he said. It’s important managers are clear about wanting to prevent conflict as much as possible in the workplace, he said.

If employees do not approach a manager about a conflict but it is clear something unusual is going on, the manager can still approach the employees and reinforce his door is always open, said Jensen.

Conflict should also be handled on a case-by-case basis, said Sirman.

“When you’re designing policies to deal with workplace conflict and designing recourse mechanisms, you need to have multiple access points and multiple options so people can pick what fits,” she said.

To prevent conflict from escalating, every organization should be equipped with a comprehensive conflict management policy, said Sirman. A good policy will list appropriate recourse mechanisms, outline the available resources and clarify the expected behaviour.

Preventing conflict and helping employees manage it is something all employers should take very seriously, said Sirman.

“A healthy workplace is really good business,” she said. “Every decision made should include the implications of what we’re doing around the workplace dynamics, workplace atmosphere, and the healthy workplace becomes the primary driver for everything the organization does.”

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