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Workplace Conflict Resolution: A Comprehensive Guide for HR Pros

Learn how to manage and resolve workplace conflicts with our in-depth guide.

Jay Canchola
HR Business Partner with 30 years experience in PeopleOps
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When it comes to understanding the importance of conflict management in a work environment, companies often get it wrong.

This article takes an in-depth look at the types of conflicts that employers should address. We’ll also discuss markers of conflict and how to resolve workplace conflict by adhering to a well-developed conflict resolution policy.

In This Article

What Employers Misunderstand About Workplace Conflict

Most companies take the approach that simple economic conflicts are the only conflicts that should be resolved. For example, the marketing manager believes that the company should enter new markets with new products, whereas the operations manager believes it is best to expand existing markets.

This kind of conflict is easy to resolve from an economic standpoint. If involved parties have the same business goal of making a profit, then each only needs to persuade the other based on business facts and best guesses about the future.

However, what if the conflict is more complex?

For example, the marketing manager believes that the company should provide IVF (in vitro fertilization) benefits, whereas the operations manager believes that IVF should not be a company benefit.

This is a difficult conversation and may not be easy to resolve even though both parties have the same capitalistic goal of making a profit. Other real-world examples are as follows:

  • The Director of operations believes that the CEO is condescending to her based on her observation that he has discounted her ideas without any discussion during meetings.
  • The VP of Engineering, who is the only Black person on the leadership team, believes that the company should have more Black executives as team members. The VPHR’s viewpoint is that there are simply not enough Black employees in the leadership pipeline.
  • The CFO believes that the stock price has been declining because its weapons are being used to kill innocent Palestinians in a conflict the UN has identified as genocide. Each time he tries to bring the issue to a discussion, he is labeled as being antisemitic.
  • The company president, on behalf of the corporation, made a political contribution to a state senator that proposed legislation to ban all abortions for women, including those that have been raped. Most of the women in the company believe that abortion services should be included in health care benefits.

Companies are at a loss when it comes to resolving conflicts and conflict management— from seemingly simple economic differences to big issues of social and racial justice, in which finding common ground may be difficult. The common denominator for all of these conflicts is that they take time and/or money to resolve and, therefore, can get in the way of achieving business goals.

In other words, the more time spent resolving conflicts, the less time is dedicated to increasing revenue and/or reducing costs.

Types of Workplace Conflicts

As illustrated above, there are many types of conflicts and many ways to categorize them. Again, companies get it wrong or do not consider all the factors that make up a conflict. Conflicts can be typed using three dimensions:

1. The nature of the conflict, simple or complex

2. The people engaged in the conflict and/or the people impacted by the conflict

3. The time span of the conflict

Most companies will classify conflicts using #1 above, namely, what is the conflict about. As mentioned above, some conflicts can be simple economic decisions, while others are more complex. Examples of complex conflicts include social and racial injustice.

Most companies will not address #2 nor #3, who the people are, nor the time span of the conflict.

A simple example of #2 is as follows: In a brainstorming scenario, workplace conflicts are easier to resolve if everyone involved are white male from the same Ivy League schools with similar degrees.

This dynamic difference implies nuances about corporate culture, sometimes defined as a company's unwritten rules. However, given that corporate culture can be difficult to define, a better way to measure this dimension is to determine the degree of psychological safety. How safe does a person feel when bringing conflicts or controversial issues to the table?

In addition to those directly involved in the conflict, there are those who will be impacted by whatever resolutions are developed. These implications will be different depending on who you are. For example, if corporate leadership decides not to provide IVF as a benefit, employees may decide to leave and go to another company that does provide IVF health care.

As for #3, the time span of the conflict, it is safe to say that there may be unintended consequences years after a resolution is found. Using the above example of IVF benefits, employees may not be able to leave a company until years after the benefit is taken away. The knock-on effect is actually felt in their personal lives. 

Recognizing Warning Signs of Conflict

If you think classifying conflict types is difficult, try looking for warning signs of a workplace conflict. One of the best practices is to look for patterns of behavior in people, both individuals and groups.

At the individual level, you may notice flashes of anger, clashing confrontations, or people retreating into silence.

However, most warning signs are not obvious but are more subtle such as body language. For example, the “how” a person makes a statement can be more revealing than “what” a person is saying. In addition, “what” a person is not saying can reveal a conflict in the early stages.

As for warning signs from groups of people, clear markers from employee attitude surveys are often overlooked or dismissed. This is especially troubling if leadership ignores repeated results from annual surveys or does not do enough follow-up.

An employee distressed by workplace conflict sitting disengaged at her desk.

Telltale Signs of Underlying Workplace Conflict

  • Decreased Productivity: Look out for missed deadlines, incomplete tasks, or decreased efficiency within teams or individuals.
  • Increased Absenteeism: Conflict can lead to stress and discomfort, prompting employees to avoid the workplace.
  • Negative Atmosphere: If interactions between employees become strained and there's a palpable sense of discomfort or resentment among team members, a conflict is likely brewing. This can include withholding information, spreading rumors, or intentionally undermining the work of others.
  • Communication Breakdown: This can include passive-aggressive behavior, avoidance of certain individuals, or open hostility during discussions.
  • Cliques and Grouping: This can lead to polarization within the team and exacerbate the conflict.
  • Increased Complaints or Grievances: A rise in complaints could be related to interpersonal conflicts, unfair treatment, or unresolved issues.
  • High Employee Turnover Rate: An increase in resignations or requests for transfers might indicate unresolved conflicts.

Effective Conflict Resolution

Human Resources should not be the only place where people can go to help resolve their conflicts. Successful organizations will take the time to train all employees to have a basic set of effective communication skills, such as active listening to resolve conflict.

Assuming that people do feel psychologically safe in the workplace, a common approach is to use the following statement:

“I felt [emotion] when you did [observable behavior]”.

For example, ”I felt offended when you told that joke about women engineers at the team meeting.” By holding the joke teller accountable, you clarify the exact offending behavior without discussing the person’s intent. The joke teller now knows what behavior was offensive and has the option to change or not change.

Leadership development should also include topics related to active listening and emotional intelligence.

The following are practical steps leaders can take to ensure conflict is addressed appropriately.

  • Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods are especially valuable when events need to be documented, given the possibility of future legal action.
  • Ensure that the open-door policy is alive and well and that there is active open communication.
  • Talent acquisition processes should include screening questions related to a person’s ability to resolve conflict or tough issues in the business environment.

Developing a Conflict Resolution Policy

In some situations, a formal and written conflict resolution policy is required. For example, in union environments, conflict resolution processes are spelled out in detail.

However, employees who are not part of the bargaining unit will not be covered. In addition, there may be a need for a formal resolution policy if there is a chance of future litigation. Therefore, if you are going to develop a written conflict resolution policy, keep it as short as possible and as clear as possible. These policies are sometimes known as ADR or Alternative Dispute Resolution policies.

A common four-step resolution policy is as follows:

Step 1: Open Door/Informal

The open-door approach works as a first step in solving workplace issues because many issues are solvable at the local level. This is especially relevant when a conflict is brought to management’s attention at the earliest possible time.

Step 2: Formal Complaint and Response

If an employee is unable to resolve a dispute with the supervisor or manager in Step One, the employee will submit a formal complaint in writing to the person who administers the ADR policy.

The formal written complaint should contain enough information to allow an investigator to evaluate the dispute and reach an appropriate conclusion. The investigator will gather data and interview people who have a vested interest in the issue.

Timing is a key factor. There should be a deadline for the investigator to prepare a written response to the formal complaint.

Step 3: Mediation

If steps One and Two do not result in a satisfactory outcome, parties may elect to try mediation.

Parties agree on a mediator who is usually selected from an independent third-party source. The parties meet with the mediator, who encourages people to discuss their differences to reach a resolution.

If the dispute is resolved by both parties, the terms of the agreement are written down in a legally binding document. It is a best practice if the employer pays for all associated costs of using a professional mediator.

Step 4: Arbitration

In the arbitration process a dispute is presented to a neutral third-party arbitrator for an award and/or decision.

The arbitrator renders an award or decision after hearing evidence and arguments presented by both parties. Arbitration is less formal than a trial and generally quicker. The arbitrator's award or decision is legally enforceable in court.

Again, it is a best practice if the employer pays for all associated costs of using a professional arbitration.

Preventing Future Conflicts

Preventing future conflicts is an unrealistic goal. As mentioned, conflict is inevitable. Someone will be dissatisfied with their performance review, angry that they were passed over for a promotion, or upset that the office space is small.

There will be generational differences that lead to conflict, or concerns about gender and other biases.

In any event, a business culture that leans into the belief that people will experience conflict in the workplace will have made a significant step towards reducing the time spent on resolving conflicts. Achieving the psychological safety that is required for people to bring differences to the table is a large hurdle to overcome.

Widespread effective listening skills will make a difference. Making sure that every single person feels that they are part of a team fits nicely into the human desire to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Jay Canchola
HR Business Partner with 30 years experience in PeopleOps
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Jay’s 30-year HR career includes working in private, academic, and public sectors of the economy. He has contributed expertise in the PeopleOps departments of brand name organizations such as Honeywell Raytheon, Arizona State University, and the Arizona Governor’s Office where he held HR roles in leadership development, employee relations, talent acquisition, compensation, compliance, performance management, and diversity.  

He has been certified since 2001 by SHRM (Society of Human Resource Management) as an SPHR (Senior Professional in Human Resources).

Jay has led employee and management teams that have produced significant bottom-line results such as:

  • Improved management performance
  • Improved business unit productivity
  • Reduced corporate liability
  • Improved employee benefits
  • Reduced recruitment costs

An 8th-generation native of Arizona, Jay has a bachelor’s degree in Human Biology from Stanford University and an MBA from Northern Arizona University.  He also attended Graduate School at Yale University. In addition, Jay completed Cornell University’s Richard Netter Workshop on Workforce Demographics.

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