The tension can make the workplace uncomfortable for other employees and have a dramatic effect on productivity.
But, conflict between two employees isn’t always a bad thing. It can lead to healthy competition, process improvements, innovation or creativity.
Here are some tips to help you tactfully put out fires between feuding employees.
Step 1. Encourage employees to work it out
Remember you’re their manager, not their mother. Use your judgment when it comes to addressing employee complaints. Managers should want their employees to be as self-sufficient as possible. Encourage your employees to manage their issues on their own.
By reacting to every whine from a worker you may actually make the situation worse by feeding into the drama. This might be perceived as favoritism and turn other employees against you.
To do this successfully, first determine whether the situation is emotionally charged and the severity of the conflict. When you’ve assessed the issue, if appropriate, talk to each employee individually to let them know that you’re aware of the situation. You should also encourage open communication and resolution among employees. Ask them if they feel comfortable going to the other employee and handling it one-on-one.
Understand that many people don’t like confrontation, so they may need guidance or talking points on how to approach the other person. Hold them accountable for their actions and for resolving the issue.
Step 2. Nip it in the bud quickly
Unfortunately, some situations won’t work themselves out and you’ll be forced to step in. Like a bad sore, if ignored too long, employee disputes can fester and infect the entire workplace and ultimately taint the reputation of your company.
Workplace disputes that aren’t addressed eventually end up sucking other employees into the drama. This “employee sideshow” can further derail productivity. Get to the root of the problem and stop the landslide before it starts.
Step 3. Listen to both sides
By the time you get involved, your office may already be buzzing with gossip. Don’t assume you know the situation based on the whispers you’ve heard around the office.
First, deal with the two individuals or group of people who are directly involved in the incident and worry about refocusing other staff members later. Sit the feuding employees down and ask each to explain their side of the story.
Some experts recommend this be done individually, while others believe you should discuss the problem with both at the same time. But before you do that, be sure to evaluate the degree of hostility between them. This way you can be sure you’re create an environment where you can discuss facts, not emotions.
If you determine that speaking to the employees at the same time is the best course of action, provide each employee uninterrupted time to give their (fact-based) side of the story. Once all employees have had this opportunity, ask each of them to offer ideas on how the situation could be resolved and how all parties could move forward.
As a manager, you need to be as objective as possible. You never, ever want to take sides. This will only fan the flames and make matters worse.
Step 4. Identify the real issue
Often the cause of an argument between a group of employees can get clouded by the all the emotions that surround it. Try to get each employee to articulate the issue in a calm way. Ask them what they want to see as an outcome.
Like a doctor, treating the symptoms only puts a Band-Aid over the issue. To avoid future flare ups, you need to get to the source. Only then, will you be able to come up with a permanent solution.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing this or you don’t think you can be impartial, you may want to consider hiring a third-party mediator to handle the situation.
Step 5. Consult your employee handbook
Deciphering right from wrong may mean reviewing your company’s policy. Employee handbooks are designed to lay down consistent rules that each employee is expected to uphold at all times.
Some examples policies that you may want to add into your employee handbook are “guidelines for appropriate conduct” and/or “conflict resolution policies.” More severe instances of conflict may move into the category of harassment or discrimination, so your handbook should also contain these policies as well as directions on how to file a complaint.
In order to offer a fair resolution, you’ll need to make sure your decision is aligned with company policy. No employee should be above the laws set forth in the workplace. Letting an employee slide when they’ve clearly gone against the rules will weaken your authority and cause resentment in the ranks.
(See also: 6 Policies You Need to Start a Strong Employee Handbook)
Step 6. Find a solution
Employers need to get employees focused on the job at hand. Employees don’t have to be best friends; they just need to get the job done. That might require reorganizing teams or giving the employees time to “cool off” before they work together again.
And remember you have a business to run. If the conflicts continue, they could seriously affect productivity. And in some cases you may need to reevaluate your staff. One antagonistic employee can wreak havoc on the rest.
Step 7. Write it up
Employees may not like it, but it’s important that you document all workplace incidents. This will help you monitor behavior over time and keep an eye out for repeat offenders that may be polluting your office.
Documenting incidents can also protect your business should a disgruntled employee try to take you to court. Always write down details from each run-in an employee has had. Ensure that your write-up is fact-based and that you keep a copy in all involved employees’ files. Include the who, what, when, where and how as well as the resolution to which all parties agreed and committed.
Step 8. Teach them how to talk
For some troubled employees, talking out a situation isn’t enough. Typically, people who have these problems have communication issues already.
If you’re experiencing a lot of strife among your staff, you may want to provide communication and problem solving training. These courses teach employees how to effectively articulate their thoughts and emotions in a nonthreatening way. The techniques they learn will help them diffuse conflicts before they blow up.
Step 9. Lead by example
Much of your company culture is based on how everyone interacts with one another. A culture of respectful communication is a “top down” proposition.
Business owners, directors, managers and other supervisors set the tone for interaction in the workplace.
By speaking to your employees in an honest and respectful manner, you create an environment that values integrity and communication. When you are open and honest, employees are more likely to do the same.
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Colleen Giallorenzo is a human resource specialist for Insperity and a certified Professional in Human Resources. She is responsible for delivering customized HR service solutions that positively impact clients’ businesses and result in retention and growth.