6 Steps to resolve conflict at the office
As a Human Resources representative, you are essentially the ‘Switzerland' of the office, particularly when a conflict arises between colleagues. Together with our very own HR Senior Officer, June Fraser, and Christine Pratt - HR law expert, Founder of the UK’s National Bullying Helpline, and formerly one of the panel members who debated the abolishment of The Employment Act and drafted The ACAS Code of Practice in 2007 – we go through 8 steps that lead to conflict resolution in the work place.
Step 1. Acknowledge that a problem exists
“There are many indicators that a difficult situation exists in the workplace, and managers should be alert to them so they can act quickly to ensure that the conflict is resolved for all parties as quickly as possible. The signs may include: a drop in motivation, a change in behaviour, decreased productivity and higher than normal levels of absence,” cautions Fraser. Some employers do not take staff turnover seriously enough, and live in denial rather than come to terms with the problem. “If high levels of staff turnover, staff absence or employee complaints keep occurring in an area of the business, then it is clearly time to address leadership skills, diversity awareness training needs, and cultures,” advises Pratt. Fraser agrees, saying: “Managers should never ignore conflict and simply need to deal with it head on.”
Step 2. Define the problem
When defining what issues may be creating conflict in the workplace, one must listen carefully to all parties involved in order to determine the cause and possible solution. “Employees need to be given the opportunity to air their grievance, either formally or informally. In order to do this, they need to know who they can speak to within the organisation, and feel comfortable expressing their feelings and concerns,” says Fraser. “Where no formal complaint has been raised but conflict is suspected, investigate,” advises Pratt, who continues: “Monitor staff turnover and absence, and try to detect the root cause behind these statistics. Clarify any issues in written form - using diaries, management file notes, or a formal written complaint. Remember that it is the documentation that makes or breaks a case, and ultimately provides lines of defence rather than assumption or subjective thought-processes.”
Step 3. Be Honest and Open
Open and honest communication should be implemented as a general rule of engagement rather than a problem-solver. “Constructive feedback meetings or forums can be productive and stimulating, and organisations should allow staff to help influence and design codes of conduct, thus encouraging ownership rather than dictatorship,” says Pratt. Should a problem arise, Fraser firmly believes that communication is the key to resolving conflict. “In my mind, where appropriate, it is better to encourage individuals to try and resolve the conflict in an informal way, rather than go through the formal channels of raising a grievance, however this avenue is also available to them if informal negotiations do not work,” she says. When in doubt, do your best to minimise the risk of a conflict arising in the first place. “Encourage positive initiatives in the office, such as an employee suggestion box or bonuses to reward certain behaviours. Do your best to reward, motivate and encourage feedback and ensure all heads of department have an open door policy,” Pratt recommends.
Step 4. Find common ground and reach solutions
In establishing a mutual agreement between two conflicting parties, Fraser advises the following: “You first need to understand the cause of the conflict, and mediate between the parties by communicating, consulting, encouraging joint problem solving, negotiating and empowering each party to take responsibly for their role in resolving the conflict.” Pratt agrees, saying, “As the saying goes, ‘It takes two hands to clap’, both parties need to be reasonable, and a good mediator will be able to help the parties put their individual case forward for resolution and propose mutually agreeable remedies.”
Step 5. Follow up and monitor actions
Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, it isn’t enough to simply agree upon a resolution, but you also need to act upon it with the view of improving circumstances that may be affecting two parties negatively. “It is paramount that actions are followed up, as conflict could easily arise again if checks are not put in place,” cautions Fraser. “A ‘wash-up’ meeting two weeks after the issues have been addressed and acknowledged, is a very practical way of ensuring that A) matters are resolved with the parties are working productively again, and B) that the lessons learned are mutually understood,” recommends Pratt.
Step 6. Determine what actions should be taken if the conflict continues unresolved
“If the working relationship has broken down and is non-productive, the business will be at risk on a number of levels, and these factors need to be understood and acknowledged,” cautions Pratt. If internal process has been exhausted and the employee remains aggrieved, the employer needs to consider alternative options. “Organisations such as the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) offer external assistance when situations have not been resolved internally . Depending on the nature of the conflict, you could seek assistance for mediation, conciliation or arbitration,” recommends Fraser.
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