Conflict resolution in the workplace

Conflict between colleagues can occur in all workplaces, regardless of their size and sector. How to deal with conflict effectively can become a time-consuming headache for all managers involved.

Typically, employees working in close proximity to each other may have minor issues and annoyances in their day-to-day working. However, when these blow up into full scale arguments how should this be handled? How do you determine who is telling ‘the truth’ or who is in ‘the right’?  Ideally, managers will want to contain the problem and avoid escalation, but by the time they hear about the problem it may already be too late for this.

The first and most effective step to ensure that you are dealing with all workplace disputes in a consistent and fair way is to ensure that you have a grievance policy in place and that it is up to date. ACAS provides excellent guidance in this area. Policies must be known to staff and employers should also note that even the most comprehensive of policies will be of no use if it is not accessible.

Quite often a quiet word with each party can resolve the conflict or dispute, so acting swiftly can pay dividends. However, by the time the problem has reached the level of a formal grievance it is often very difficult to help employees to see one another’s side and to reach any form of agreement. They may have become entrenched in their arguments and their perception of the conflict. Most typically in a grievance situation, employees will be asked at a formal meeting what their preferred outcome is.  They could respond to say that they want ‘an apology’ and ‘for the behaviour to stop’.  The difficulty here is that managers cannot force an apology from either side in such disputes and any attempt to do so may not be met with a heartfelt response. Grievances can also be followed by counter grievances from the other party and the situation can spiral.

A potential way forward in such situations is to get both parties to agree to mediation. This option can be considered at the first sign of a protracted or escalating dispute. An independent person trained in workplace mediation can save managers a significant amount of time and money by working with both parties to reach an agreement. Typically, this would be done over the course of a full working day with a focus on leaving the past behind and looking to the future working relationship. Successful mediation gives both parties a chance to have their say but without assigning blame. The entire process is about moving forwards in a positive, solutions-focused way.

The law and practice referred to in this article has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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