A recent workplace study conducted by FairWay has found that anger and frustration are the two most common reactions employees have to workplace conflict in New Zealand. And with an array of different personality types filling jobs around the country, it’s only natural that workplaces experience conflict from time to time. As a business owner or manager, however, it’s your role to manage conflict within the workplace to minimise disruption and promote a safe working environment.

In this article, we dive into workplace disputes, explain the importance of communication, management, and conversation, and why employers must ensure they don’t get it wrong.

So, how should you handle workplace conflicts?

Work-related disputes between an employee and management

In addition to personality clashes and interpersonal conflict, our workplace relations laws, including certain elements of the Employment Relations Act 2000 (ERA), can either be ambiguous or require employers and employees to discuss and agree on various matters. Often these conversations may not be handled well and naturally, this leaves room for disputes to occur. A simple example of this would be the taking of annual leave since it’s up to each employer and employee to agree on when and for how long annual leave can be taken. Though the employer must not unreasonably refuse an employee’s request to take annual leave, what constitutes reasonable may vary from person to person.

It’s advisable for the employee and their manager to first try to resolve the dispute through discussion in good faith. Often, understanding the other party’s needs and concerns can assist in reaching a mutually acceptable outcome.

Where this doesn’t resolve the matter, or it’s inappropriate for the manager to be involved (for example, if there are allegations of bullying against that manager, or they don’t have oversight over the subject matter of the dispute), the employee should be encouraged to escalate the dispute to more senior management levels.

Once this process has been exhausted, the parties may look to external support for the resolution, such as through private mediation, Early Resolution Services or Employment Mediation Services.

Has it gone further than a work-related dispute?

Sometimes, a situation escalates to something more than a mere disagreement about work, such as where a dispute about the allocation of work transforms into something more serious, such as allegations of bullying and harassment or discrimination.

Bullying and harassment have direct organisational and health and safety implications – environments where bullying and harassment exist are known to have greater stress and relationship problems, higher turnover, lower morale, reduced productivity, and higher incident and accident statistics.

Employers are required to ensure health and well-being within the workplace and are therefore directly responsible for dealing with bullying and harassment. This is not just the management of an incident, but the creation of a safe and positive culture in the workplace that does not tolerate bullying or harassment.

The importance of communication, management, and conversation

1. Effective communication

When you’re faced with a scenario involving conflict between your employees, the key to resolving conflict is clear communication. When first raising the issue with team members, a face-to-face conversation is always preferred, as it facilitates better and smoother conversation than written communication or even meetings which rely on technology.

If you’re raising certain behaviour to the employee, you need to have key examples of what’s alleged to have occurred, and when. You should ensure that you’re listening as well as speaking: ask yourself whether you’ve given your employee a chance to explain how the situation made them feel? There are multiple sides to every story, and an employer should reserve judgment or decision-making until each relevant party has been given their chance to speak. This is reflected in the ERA as a good faith employment relations obligation.

Before having the conversation with an employee, ask yourself:

  • What do I know (the facts)?
  • What do I want to know?
  • What do I want to happen (managing expectations or standards)?
  • What will the successful outcome look like?
  • What risks do I need to factor in and how can I manage them?

2. Managing a complaint

If you receive a complaint, how should you best respond?

  • You need to respond promptly, even if it may not be urgent. This will show the employee/s that you’re listening and consider their welfare important.
  • Treat all matters seriously. While something might seem quite minor or comical to you, to someone else it’s in the forefront of their mind.
  • Maintain confidentiality. Only the people who need to know about what has happened and management’s response should be kept informed.
  • Each person needs to know that their version of events is being given a fair hearing. Make sure that you’re being fair to all parties.
  • Support all parties – both parties need to know that they have support, e.g., do you provide an employee assistance program? Interviewees should be offered to bring a support person to attend interviews.
  • If a matter needs to be escalated to a misconduct meeting, ensure procedural requirements are met.

3. Crucial conversations

Conversations dealing with conflict in the workplace are what we call crucial conversations. Why are they crucial? Stakes are high, emotions are strong, and opinions vary.

When having a crucial conversation, you need to ensure a safe zone. A safe zone comprises two things:

  • Mutual purpose: where both parties believe they’re working towards a common goal in the conversation, and that both parties care about the goals, interests, and values.
  • Mutual respect: Where both parties respect each other. Where mutual respect exists, we tend to actively listen to each other and acknowledge feelings, perspectives, and differences without judgment.

Workplaces are a diverse mix of people who come from different backgrounds, with different values, and different ideas of what’s right and wrong. And while it’s often encouraged to let employees sort out their differences themselves without involving management, it’s important to ask the question: are my employees equipped with the right communication tools to take part in a crucial conversation?

To ensure employees are responding effectively, a simple three-step process should be followed:

  • Stop – is it appropriate to react or respond immediately?
  • Look and listen – am I in fight or flight mode? Do I have to approach this situation alone?
  • Proceed – Should I remove myself from the situation? Should I provide immediate feedback? Do I need to ask for help?

Having the right tools in place to respond to and manage conflict is half the battle when it comes to handling workplace disputes. Conflict management is an important part of running your business and employers must get this process right every time.

If this article has raised any questions about how to manage workplace disputes and disagreements, please reach out to our experts via our 24/7 Telephone Advisory Service.