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Employee Conflict Resolution

Organizations are made up of people, so some conflict is inevitable. Conflict can be healthy if managed well, but you may be apprehensive about your role in conflict resolution. We’re here to support you in developing the skills to not only resolve issues, but even better, to prevent them.

But the negative consequences of unresolved employee conflict have a ripple effect impacting the employees involved, their teams, HR, and the organization as a whole. As we’ll learn in this article, the costs range from monetary in the form of lost productivity and turnover to health and legal issues in the form of stress-related illnesses and even harmful behavior.

Employee conflict resolution is one of the best strategies that organizations can utilize to not only resolve those issues, but even better, to prevent them.

What is Employee Conflict Resolution?

Employee conflict resolution is a process that identifies an issue between two or more people and attempts to provide a mutually beneficial solution.

Engaging in employee conflict resolution at an early stage is a significant proactive strategy that can prevent multiple negative outcomes for an organization.

Why It’s Important to Resolve Employee Conflicts Quickly

Think about the last time you were in a conflict. Did your heart pound? Were you able to listen and consider all sides? Most people don’t like conflict. And employees experiencing conflict in the workplace may feel personally attacked, or believe that their work is being criticized.

We know from research that when we are scared, we aren’t able to use the very skills (listening, thinking, being empathetic) needed to resolve such issues. That’s why other people can help: we bring a calm, unbiased presence and an objective process to use.

And there is no doubt that conflict resolution is essential to your business. Failure to resolve employee conflicts has serious implications for numerous aspects of a company’s bottom line.

  • Productivity. Workplace conflict is a serious drain on the ability of employees to be productive while at work. It’s also a frequent cause of increased absenteeism as employees stay home to avoid stressful conflict.
  • Health issues. The stress caused by conflict also leads to increased health costs as employees seek professional help to deal with the physical and mental health effects of stress.
  • Turnover. If employees feel that the company is not rectifying an issue or isn’t taking their concerns seriously, they may opt to resign. And employees who cause conflict may be terminated, resulting in possible costs in unemployment claims, recruitment, and more lost productivity.
  • Legal issues. Unresolved conflict doesn’t just disappear. Frustrated employees may file charges of discrimination or harassment. The time spent in defending charges alone is costly; add a winning claim, and costs increase exponentially. Issues that are not addressed can also lead to employee interest in unionization, which provides some measure of assurance that grievances will be addressed but may cause additional issues for the employer.
  • Behavior. Workplace harassment and even violence is unfortunately fairly common, and it often begins with conflict which could have been prevented or resolved.

Employee conflicts that are addressed and resolved quickly and fairly have a higher chance of avoiding more serious consequences.

Tips for Surfacing Conflicts

Before you can resolve a conflict, the parties must acknowledge that it exists and be willing to participate in resolution. Knowing that conflicts exist even if you’re not aware of them is important. It may seem counterintuitive, but helping conflict come to light (rather than growing underground) is a very helpful step in prevention and resolution.

Employees are usually reluctant to “get other people in trouble” and don’t want to be viewed as “tattletales” by coworkers or management, which makes it even more challenging for HR to identify and resolve issues.

They may feel that they’ll be blamed for the issue, or that HR/management will play favorites. They may fear negative consequences if their issue is with their manager. (This power differential makes employee-supervisor conflict resolution a special area of training.) Many people never surface their concerns, choosing instead to ignore them, suffer in silence, or just leave the department or the company.

The first and best thing that HR can do to surface conflicts is to build trust with employees. Employees are much more likely to bring issues to HR or management if they feel that their concerns are taken seriously and that you are sincerely interested in helping them get resolution.

Use a variety of approaches to identify possible conflicts before they erupt.

  • Build rapport. Open the lines of communication and build relationships by encouraging employees to visit the HR office to stop in and say hello, ask questions, or just to chat. Likewise, make sure HR members get out of the office whenever possible to meet or chat with employees on their own turf.
  • Formalize the company’s commitment. Create a written policy or statement that explains the company’s commitment to conflict resolution, and ensure that employees can access it.
  • Provide a reporting method. Provide several ways that employees can report conflict via:
      • HR
      • A management or leadership representative who has received related training
      • An anonymous employee hotline
      • An external entity that you’ve contracted with, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or a conflict resolution resource
  • Observe. Pay close attention to interactions between employees that seem to be problematic or unsuccessful. Gather background information by asking discreet questions, following up, and monitoring any potential problem areas.

Work towards supporting an inclusive workplace where all employees feel they will be heard and their concerns addressed. Training and initiatives focused on employee conflict resolution, respectful communication techniques, and collaboration form the basis for productive workplace behavior. This training can be staff-wide, but is also part of your ongoing professional development.

Building strong, congenial relationships with employees based on trust doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to identify or resolve every conflict that arises. But it certainly provides a strong foundation for building a successful resolution.

How to Resolve a Conflict Between Employees

After you’ve gathered sufficient information to determine that conflict exists, or if you’ve been asked to resolve a conflict by employees or management, schedule a meeting with the appropriate parties. It should be in a private, comfortable but neutral location where you won’t experience interruptions.

Consider including a member of the HR team or other appropriate company representative to attend and take notes, leaving you free to focus on the conversation. This will ensure that all relevant information is captured and can also serve as a defense in the event of potential complaints of unfair treatment or negligence during the process on the part of the company or representatives.

There are different techniques to employee conflict resolution, but the desired outcome is generally the same: to reach a mutually beneficial solution for all parties involved. We’ve chosen the SHRM HR Magazine model of the following ten steps to share with you. It’s a comprehensive but simple-to-follow process.

Step 1: Establish Ground Rules

Explain the ground rules. Obtain agreement from all participants that they will be respectful and attentive, and that they will try to understand different viewpoints.

Step 2: Give Everyone a Chance to Share Their Side

Provide an opportunity for each party to describe the issue and the change they’d like to see. Explain the concept of using “I” statements, as in “I feel _” rather than “You” statements such as, “You did _”. Help them understand that the focus must be on the action rather than the person.

Step 3: Confirm Understanding

Ask each person to restate what the other party has said. Give the other party the chance to make any corrections as necessary. Summarize the issue and obtain agreement from each party that it has been correctly presented.

Step 4: Brainstorm Solutions

This is the point at which the employees can take ownership in resolution of the conflict. Brainstorm possible solutions. Keep it positive and framed as a win-win for all parties. Discard solutions that can’t be agreed upon or that aren’t feasible. List all the possible solutions that remain.

Step 5: Narrow Solutions

Ask each participant to further analyze each of the options to ensure that they fully understand each option as well as their responsibility for each.

Step 6: Agree on Next Steps

Obtain agreement from each side on what next steps should be.

Step 7: Apologize

Ask participants to apologize for any misunderstanding that occurred and to thank each other for the opportunity to work together to solve a mutual problem.

As an example of an alternative, shorter approach, HR Daily Advisor recommends a six-step process. This method begins with a focus on determining what the problem actually is and ends with agreement on both sides of the best solution, followed by determining what each party is responsible for in the future.

When Conflict Resolution Doesn’t Work

There may be situations where any employee conflict resolution method is unsuccessful, or when you should bypass the process and take other actions, such as disciplinary action or termination. (Always consult with an employment attorney in those cases.) This may be the case if the behavior is:

  • Egregious: willful, deliberate, and malicious
  • A significant violation of company policy
  • Dangerous
  • Harassing or discriminatory
  • Has the potential for additional, problematic consequences

However, the majority of your employee conflict resolution meetings will result in a positive solution that won’t require such harsh measures.

In fact, SHRM’s HR Magazine reports that employee conflict resolution works in about 80% of cases, so the time spent resolving employee conflicts is well worth the investment.

Collaboration is key

These and most approaches will provide a strong framework for employee conflict resolution. But remember that it should be a collaborative process. Solving problems for employees isn’t the most effective way to resolve them as they have no “skin in the game.”

Making participants responsible to reach a mutually beneficial resolution provides additional incentives for overall engaged participation and provides them with a sense of ownership of the process.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Employee Conflict Resolution

Whose responsibility is it to resolve conflicts?
Human Resources is generally responsible for managing the conflict resolution process, due to its expertise and broad knowledge of the organization. But the company as a whole, including management and leadership, is responsible to ensure that conflict resolution is a priority for the organization.
What should I do if a conflict can’t be resolved?
If everyone has participated appropriately but the conflict isn’t resolved, it’s time to move to the next step. Seek outside assistance from a third party such as a mediator or attorney. If one (or more) of the parties isn’t upholding their commitment, that must be followed up with training, discipline, or even termination.
Beth Campagno

Beth Campagno

Beth has many years of corporate HR and business experience in a variety of business environments. She found her second career writing a wide variety of HR content (DE&I, thought leadership, blog articles, eBooks, case studies, and more) for HR SaaS companies.

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