Workplace conflict - So who's to blame?

Work life, Employer advice

No organisation is exempt from conflict. Whether it's a clash of personalities, cult classic The Godfather shows that even families can't escape the fight over personal interests, or different work ethics. A conflict at work can leave people feuding and it's inevitable that not everyone will always get along. Managers cannot shy away from this fact, it's part and parcel of the role.

A report published by Cascade, the HR and payroll software company, revealed the main causes of conflict and shone a light on how organisations currently tackle it. With over half of respondents feeling that their company is ineffective at resolving office conflict, the issue needs to be addressed. In order to tackle conflict though managers must firstly understand why it occurs and what it stems from.

What are the main offenders?

Cascade's Workplace Conflict Resolution report surveyed 1,000 UK temporary and permanent workers and found that working longer hours, being given bigger workloads compared to fellow employees and perceiving favouritism are the main catalysts for conflict. Workers who feel that they are overworked, underappreciated and ignored compared to their colleagues can start to feel resentment towards other employees that are promoted, praised and celebrated by their manager. This can cause tension within a team and with the manager too. Over a quarter of Cascade's respondents stated they have had problems in the past with their direct manager. Senior members of staff are not void of being tangled up in conflict if they do not provide employees with the support, appreciation and communication they look for.

High school never ends

The jocks, the cheerleaders, the band geeks - no, we're not describing an American 80s cult movie. Cliques, albeit not as extreme as what is seen on the silver screen, similarly take place in the UK workplace too. Defined social groups and departments can encourage gossip and inevitably the rumour mill to churn. With gossip and rumours being within the top three reasons for conflict at work, the comparisons between high school and the workplace can be drawn. With a fifth of respondents claiming most conflicts are between departments further shows that cliques are still very much apparent within the current workforce. We might be out of education but the drama appears to have followed.

The ripple effect of conflict

When conflict occurs the aftermath impacts more people than the initial parties involved. The knock-on effect for witnesses, close colleagues and even departments is de-motivation, distancing themselves from employees, an increase in stress and even deliberation over leaving, depending on the conflict. Managers must be mindful of how a small issue amongst employees can escalate and create a negative atmosphere across the work floor. The result can be a breakdown in team work and employee communication as well as the possibility of driving skilled workers who were not involved in the dispute to leave.

Can you push a limit if one hasn't been defined?

It might be second nature to us that when at work we act professionally and morally but it isn't the case for everyone. Just under half of workers revealed that there is no official policy on behaviour in their organisation and with only 21% of Cascade's respondents feeling that without guidelines their fellow employees do know how to act, conflict can arise easily and quickly. The report further revealed that for every 10 respondents one knew of colleagues that have taken advantage of the lack of formal regulation rolled out in a company. It is not enough for managers to assume people know and follow the rules of business etiquette when none are solidly in place.

Who is responsible for solving workplace conflict?

Employees appear to be uncertain as to whom to turn to when conflict arises and whether HR should, and if so when,  step in. 35% believed HR should be more involved, 25% argued that HR should be an escalation point and 18% perceive that taking issues to their line manager is a step too far. Quite a shocking revelation is that many employees decided to wait until the problem spills into other parts of their life as over a third of respondents only decide to take action once their work is being impacted. With such clear disparity between what employees believe is right or wrong when tackling workplace conflict organisations need to produce and share guidelines on the process and procedure of escalation.

What can managers do?

Workplace conflict is inevitable and will always occur. Reducing the reasons why and learning how to resolve them is where the managerial focus should be.

  • A work code of conduct
    Creating and implementing this from the top down will educate employees on how to behave, what is acceptable and what is not on the work floor.
  • Conflict guide and escalation point procedure
    Work with senior management to create a policy around office conflict and what should occur when it happens. It's at the discretion of senior management whether HR should be involved or not but once agreed and confirmed this needs to be communicated to the organisation.
  • Praise your employees
    Be the mediator that resolves conflict, not part of the disagreement. Acknowledging all of your employees' work efforts and contributions, not overlooking or having a clear favourite will remove you from the firing line.
  • Communication
    Let your staff know that they can approach and talk to you about issues that they are having at work. Be transparent and honest with them to build trust and a support network amongst your team.

Whether or not you enjoy conflict, it's your duty at work to address and resolve it. No matter the issue and parties involved, to manage the situation effectively and come to the fairest resolution possible following organisational procedure is necessary. If a situation becomes overly personal, is a sensitive topic, or increases the risk of employees leaving remember Don Corleones statement in the cult classic The Godfather, "It's not personal. Its strictly business."

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