How to resolve conflict in the workplace

01 May 2023

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By Vaughan Granier

If each of us had a dollar for every personality clash in the workplace, we’d all be rich by now.

Conflict is common, and it can often be thought of as a natural result from people being passionate about workplace decisions.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the many different kinds of workplace conflict, but we have this guide to ensure your methodology for responding to conflict is lawful, practical, and easy to follow.

Steps to managing and resolving conflicts in the workplace

Step 1: Have a grievance policy; use it as your guide

Before you begin taking responsibility for solving workplace conflict, it’s important to ensure you have a policy around grievances.

This is a policy that outlines how employees should report a grievance they may have. The policy should preface or outline the steps the business will take to resolve the dispute. This can personally affect you if you, as the employer, need to be the person managing the resolution of any conflict.

The very first step (if you find it appropriate) should be that the parties involved in the dispute attempt to resolve the matter between themselves. This allows employees to take responsibility for their actions and attempt to resolve the matter.

Why? Because employees may have a conflict between each other stemming from either a misunderstanding of instructions or a misinterpretation of another’s tone/and or actions. If this is simply raised between the parties at their own initiative, it’s likely that the dispute will be resolved quickly without the need of formalising the process. It needs to be clear, however, that if they are going to attempt to resolve things directly, they must do so in a non-confrontational manner.

Step 2: Management need to help resolve the conflict

If your employee is unable to resolve the grievance directly with the other party or parties involved, or if it is inappropriate to do so, your employee should refer their grievance in writing to management, whether that is you personally or someone else in the business.

For example, your employee will need to advise you of all the details of their concern and their preferred outcome. It’s important to note that complainants cannot, except in extraordinary circumstances, demand to be anonymous, because the employer cannot investigate a grievance anonymously. It’s now the responsibility of you and your management team to deal with the complaint and come to a resolution.

One way you might attempt to resolve the issue is by setting up a mediation between the parties. This gives the individuals an opportunity to air their grievances out loud in a safe space where you, other appropriate management, or even an external party, can step in to settle things down should the conversation get out of hand. It also allows the parties to confront the issue objectively and you can steer the discussion by asking leading questions such as “How does everyone around the table feel about that?” or “Can we each name something to help move forward?”.

Mediation has its place here as well. Mediation exists to implement a solution that will allow both parties to get back to work with the issue resolved.

Step 3: Investigation

It may be appropriate to escalate the conflicting matter, if mediation hasn’t worked, or was inappropriate in the circumstances. Investigations can lead to consequences; and because these are not always consensual outcomes, a compliant process with protection of everyone’s basic rights is very important.

An investigation should be conducted by either your business’s HR department or an independent third-party external consultant. The purpose of the investigation is to get to the bottom of the issue and determine on the balance of probabilities whether there is evidence to support the truth of the allegations. This will take listening to witnesses, looking at evidence and hearing both the complainants and respondents versions and explanations. The investigator should also provide your business with a written report outlining the findings as well as suggested recommendations. An example of this is sending your employee to a training session on appropriate workplace behaviour.

When the findings are ready, you as the employer will be able to decide on what the appropriate outcome needs to be. It can’t just be implemented, without a proper process. You will need to set up a meeting to propose an outcome based on the investigation report, and only determine this after consultation.

This should ensure both parties can move on from the issue and continue to work positively and harmoniously. This decision may result in disciplinary action or potential termination (in serious cases). The example the employer sets of handling these issues decisively and fairly builds respect and a positive workplace culture.

To resolve the conflict during the investigation stage, make sure that you:

  1. Understand the situation.
  2. Acknowledge the problem.
  3. Take time to deal with the issue (don’t rush it), while also placing reasonable time limits for various stages of the process to be completed . This enables parties to be involved and confident that conflict resolution is being progressed.
  4. Focus on the problem and not the individual, using open communication. Then you can establish guidelines for resolution.

Conflicts will vary in every workplace and no two outcomes will be the same. The way in which conflict will be dealt with may require a unique solution for each but, following the guidelines above, you should be on the right path to settle any dispute you are presented with.

Conflict management is an important part of running your business and employers must get this process right every time. What you need is the right tools to respond to and manage conflict – after all, that’s half the battle when it comes to handling workplace disputes.

Find the tools, workflows, software and over-the-phone advice you need with HR Assured. And, 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.

Vaughan Granier is the National Workplace Relations Manager for HR Assured NZ. He has over 24 years’ experience in international human resources, health and safety, and workplace relations management. With over 10 years working in New Zealand and Australian companies, he provides in-depth support to leadership teams across all areas of HR, Health and Safety, and employee management.

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