Avoiding a conflict tsunami at work

HR can help feuding employees manage minor disagreements on their own

In the right conditions, the smallest conflict can ripple into a full-blown tsunami. Consider, as an example, a department of professionals who have split into camps and are no longer speaking to one another — this group has descended into a toxic minefield requiring external, professional intervention.

So what happened? Two key players had an altercation about work processes that was not resolved at the front line in a timely fashion. Although they initially sought assistance, management and HR failed to recognize the seriousness of the clash and failed to follow up on the incident.

The ensuing hostility affected the entire team, costing the organization contracts and credibility.

An early resolution to this would have resulted in a different story. Solving the problem while it was a small conflict would have prevented escalation and hostility, as well as preserving key working relationships.

Human resources professionals are well-positioned to play an instrumental role in helping their organization achieve its conflict resolution goals by:

• supporting employees to identify and address problems early

• training key stakeholders to ensure team members, leaders and managers have the skills and confidence to resolve issues

• ensuring ongoing compliance with organizational expectations by leveraging existing processes and professional expectations

• developing and implementing a staged approach to conflict resolution that is accessible and understood by all employees.


HR professionals are not only trained in talent management and leadership development, they possess advanced people skills — the ability to listen and really hear what the problem is.

But employees faced with day-to-day issues are often hesitant to deal directly with those issues. Many choose avoidance because they lack the confidence to assert their needs. Others make assumptions that may not be accurate. For example: “Fred doesn’t like me — even if I speak to him, nothing will change.”

These employees need a thoughtful ear to help them validate the real issue and encouragement to pursue a constructive, timely solution. At this point, an HR professional can also help the employee discern whether he needs to pursue this issue or whether to let it go.


HR professionals have the skill set to coach and mentor employees to address one-on-one conflict situations. Building on the support function, HR professionals can help employees plan the interaction, such as inviting the other party to participate and engaging in meaningful dialogue.

Many employees need assistance on how to clear the air, clarify their needs and concerns and explore possibilities for moving forward.


Support and skill need to be accompanied by organizational structure. This includes:

• clear organizational expectations with regard to resolving conflict

• a staged approach to conflict management and dispute resolution

• organizational commitment to build and sustain a culture that values employees who actively resolve conflicts between co-workers.

Taking a staged approach

Most employees would prefer to hear about any concerns directly from the other person involved, and have an opportunity to resolve the problem directly with that individual. This is consistent with dispute-resolution best practices that separate workplace conflict resolution into four distinct steps:

Prevention and co-operation: The first step is having a clear set of organizational expectations. These may include codes of conduct, policies and procedures, legislation, collective agreements and professional standards.

For example, one organization implemented core organizational expectations. It challenged its entire staff, from grounds maintenance to senior management, to actively seek out supports when unable to resolve conflict.

Most employers have internal codes of conduct and specialized staff who are also subject to professional standards. For example, the code of ethics of the Probation Officers Association of Ontario (POAO) states members have a responsibility to colleagues to develop a working relationship of mutual respect and co-operation.

Reminding employees of these internal and external expectations, and creating an environment conducive to fulfilling these obligations, are essential.

Ideally, there should be organizational processes that prevent disputes by encouraging those involved to co-operate at an early stage. This avoids the advancement of the conflict into more expensive, damaging and time-consuming options.

At this stage the conflict, or the perception of incompatible interests, has not been shared, so it is quite possible the other party to the conflict is not aware of the problem.

Dispute control: At this second stage, party A airs her differences with party B privately, courteously and in a timely manner. Ideally, the two parties have a collegial discussion that clarifies the problem and canvasses solutions to resolve the situation.

Too often, parties move to the facilitated or imposed resolution stage without satisfactorily sharing information and negotiating informally.

Facilitated resolution: During this stage, the manager or some other trusted third party acts as a mediator to assist the disputants to reach a mutually agreeable solution. In some circumstances, an HR professional may assume this role.

As a form of assisted negotiation, the facilitated resolution stage allows parties to retain control over confidentiality and the outcome of the dispute. The best and most enduring outcomes result when all the parties involved agree on the resolution, rather than having it imposed.

Imposed resolution: Employees need to know there is a point where the conflict may be taken out of their control. If facilitated attempts to resolve the issues continue to be unsuccessful, a manager or person in authority will impose a resolution.

Ideally, the manager should reinforce with both parties his expectation they will use the process to informally sort out issues with each other in the future.

In the worst-case scenario, a conflict can grow into a formal dispute requiring formal processes such as arbitration. At this point, hostility has escalated and there is an increased expenditure of time and resources.

It’s important to note most existing processes at an organization, such as grievance procedures and harassment policies, already allow for an informal resolution between disputing parties.

It is imperative this step not be overlooked because of negative attributions and a lack of confidence to have a difficult conversation.

Anne Grant is president of AEG Dispute Resolution Services (also known as Mediated Solutions) in Toronto. She also teaches at the Industrial Relations Centre at Queens University in Kingston, Ont. Grant can be reached at [email protected] or, for more information, visit www.mediatedsolutions.ca.

Latest stories