Managing workplace conflict

By Portner Press on March 8th, 2019
  1. Termination of Employment
  2. Dismissal


An unpleasant working environment plagued by internal conflicts can have serious consequences not only for your employees, but also your business.

Workplace conflicts can take several forms, including:

  • personality clashes;
  • difficulties undertaking performance management; and
  • repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed at an employee constituting workplace bullying.

When these conflicts are left unaddressed, employees may feel undervalued and disrespected, which in turn can lower employee morale, reduce productivity and in some cases increase absenteeism and staff turnover.

In the most serious situations, employees might suffer from psychological injuries and other serious mental health issues, which you can be legally liable for. This can cause reputational damage as well.

Below we outline 5 steps you must take to minimise the risk of workplace conflicts and reduce your organisation’s legal liability.

1. Implement workplace policies:

Workplace policies should outline what type of conduct that will not be tolerated by the organisation.

Typically, this would include any type of unlawful behaviour and any behaviour that is disrespectful and has the potential to harm other employees.

2. Conduct training:

Employees must be aware of the policies, and their obligations to each other and the organisation.

Regularly discuss appropriate workplace behaviour and set clear expectations regarding conduct.

3. Implement complaint procedures:

Employees should know who they can speak to about workplace issues and if necessary, raise a formal complaint.

Encourage employees to raise potential workplace issues on a confidential basis so that problems can be addressed at an early stage before they become more serious.

4. Obtain feedback:

Conduct exit interviews to understand the reasons why an employee has decided to move on from your organisation.

This is another way to identify potential problems in the workplace and why a particular team or department may be experiencing high staff turnover

5. Manage disputes appropriately:

Managers and HR officers should be aware of the conflict resolution procedure and be trained to ensure disputes are properly and efficiently managed.

Ensure conflicts are dealt with confidentially and in a timely manner.

Conflict between employees and their supervisors can often arise in during performance management. To aim to prevent this, feedback should be provided regularly and constructively, not just during an annual review.


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Approaches to conflict resolution

There are a number of approaches you can take to resolve workplace conflict.

  • Informal approach

For most workplace conflicts, an informal approach will be sufficient to resolve the problem.

The advantage of an informal approach is that the problem can be handled quickly and with minimal disruption to your business.

It may involve the manager or HR officer speaking with the alleged wrongdoer and reminding them of the business’ policies and expected standards in the workplace.

  • Counselling or retraining

If the wrongdoer’s conduct requires more than an informal approach, or that approach has not caused the conduct to stop, counselling or retraining the employee about expected standards in the workplace may be required.

This may involve more than one session, and it would be prudent for the responsible manager or HR officer to pay close attention to the person’s day-to-day conduct to ensure the counselling or training has been effective.

  • Mediation

If the first two approaches are inadequate, or if those steps have been implemented and proved ineffective, the conflict might be resolved through mediation.

Mediation can be relatively informal and is often appropriate where the conflicting employees have a different opinion or values to one another.

The mediator can provide both parties with an unimpeded opportunity to state their position and clarify any issues, as well as assist the parties to see the other person’s point of view.

Depending on the circumstances, the mediator may also suggest practical solutions to resolve the dispute and attempt to avoid similar disputes arising in the future.

  • Investigation

For serious or persistent issues, an investigation may be required.

An investigation is different to the previous methods of resolution because it is a mechanism to determine whether the conduct actually occurred.

In the first three methods, while the facts are relevant, they may not necessarily determine who is right and who is wrong.

Given investigations generally have a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’, they can have severe consequences for the parties, e.g. resignation of one or more of the employees involved.

Like mediation, an investigation is not required to be a formal process, although in some cases the engagement of an external investigator may be appropriate.

Where an investigation is considered necessary, it is important the investigator understands the scope of the investigation and that the alleged perpetrator is given an adequate chance to respond to the allegations.

The alleged victim should put their complaints in writing and provide as many details of the alleged incident(s) as possible.

The investigator should be a person who can ask probative questions and critically assess conflicting factual statements.

The investigator’s findings will assist the business to determine what disciplinary action, if any, will be taken against the perpetrator.

  • Dismissal

In circumstances where an employee has been appropriately warned and the conduct continues, or the conduct is sufficiently serious, dismissal may be necessary.

Terminating a person’s employment is a significant action to take, and care should be taken to ensure it is not done carelessly, or without defensible reason or process.

Remember, when resolving conflict, it is important that you maintain confidentiality.

Employees are more likely to engage in the conflict resolution process (either as the victim, perpetrator or witness) if they are confident the process and their statements will remain confidential.

Learn more in the Employment Law Practical Handbook

Whatever action you take to resolve conflict, it must be within the law.

You can find the vital information you need in the following chapters of the Employment Law Practical Handbook:

E6 Employee Grievances and Disputes

H2 Performance Management

W6 Workplace Policies and Procedures

W5 Workplace Investigations

D2 Dismissal

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