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Can’t We All Just Get Along? Managing Employee Disputes

Although this may not come as too much of a surprise for anyone who has managed employees, a recent survey found that managers spend, on average, 20 percent of their time—more than seven hours a week or nine weeks per year—dealing with employee disputes. While conflict in the workplace is certainly nothing new, a number of managers participating in the study reported being called upon a significantly greater amount of time to intervene in employee disputes during the past couple of years. Some attribute the downturn in the economy to increased workplace friction since it has required most of us to work harder, longer, and in many cases, with fewer resources. In any event, it is critical for a manager to know when it is the appropriate time to step in and seek a resolution to the conflict before the morale and unity of the entire team is compromised.

A manager cannot, and should not, attempt to immediately mediate in every dispute between employees. The feuding employees should generally be given time to work out the problem on their own. If, however, the employees’ conflict has escalated to a point that it is affecting their work performance or disrupting other employees, it is time for the manager to immediately intervene. The first step should be for the manager, with an HR representative present, to interview each of the employees to hear each side of the story and allow the employees to air their grievances. During the interview, the manager should neither blame nor criticize an employee nor take a position with regard to which employee is correct. Rather, the manager should keep the conversation professional and attempt to divert the conversation toward a constructive solution rather than allowing lengthy personal attacks by one employee about the other. The HR representative should be taking notes during the interviews.

After interviewing both of the employees separately, the manager, with an HR representative in attendance, should meet with both of the employees together. The purpose of the meeting should be to explore and elicit from the employees solutions they believe might solve the problem and to seek confirmation that the employees are interested in working through the issue. If there is a reasonable solution proposed, the employees should be strongly encouraged to accept the solution, stop arguing, and cooperate. It is the manager’s job to maintain a professional and constructive meeting. If an agreement is reached, the HR representative should record the solution in writing and ask both employees to sign. The manager should also remind the employees that working cooperatively with their coworkers is an essential function of their jobs and a skill upon which they will be evaluated.

If no agreement can be reached during the meeting between the two employees, the manager’s job is to sternly advise the employees that personal disputes have no place in the workplace and that if the dispute results in performance issues and/or violations of company rules, the employees will be subject to discipline up to and including termination. The HR representative should also document this conversation.