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Office Conflict—What Every HR Manager Should Know

Posted by Elaine Varelas  June 7, 2010 08:00 AM

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By Elaine Varelas

If you were to mention the words “office conflict” in a room full of HR managers, you would surely get a wide variety of responses. For some people, conflict takes on a negative connotation. They imagine lawsuits, litigation, and office strife. Some people thrive on the thrill of conflict. Others still, try to avoid it at all costs.

What is your instinctual response when someone says “office conflict?” How do you handle conflict at your organization? No matter your reaction to the words, most HR managers are bound to encounter conflict in their roles. Here’s what every HR manager needs to know about conflict:

Conflict happens.
Whether you work at a Fortune 500 company, a family business, in a partnership (and even in some sole proprietorships)—conflict will occur. Within any relationship—professional or personal—there is bound to be disagreement. It doesn’t reflect badly on you as an HR manager if your workplace has conflict, and it doesn’t indicate that there is something inherently faulty about your office culture or policies. Conflict is natural.

Avoiding it does more harm than good
In some cases, HR managers make the mistake of handling conflict by avoiding it. They set up systems to try to reduce, mitigate, or eliminate conflict or situations where discord may occur. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work—conflict still happens. But in the process of squelching it, HR managers are also stifling ideas. Ideas in the workplace are not always generated through disagreement, but oftentimes, through the process of conflict (heated discussions or passionate pleas) big ideas are born. Managers must also be able to deal with conflict to move the idea process along. By taking away the space to have these conversations, you may be robbing the organization of its methods for thinking big.

Let the people speak!
Conflict is most effectively resolved by the parties experiencing the conflict. Channeling the issue through layers of HR red tape and soliciting outside opinions only serves to dilute and delay the outcome. Everyone should represent him- or herself in the resolution process. It may also help to have the manager in attendance so the team can strategize ways to resolve the disagreement. HR managers can help guide the process, offer support, and give employees and managers the tools they need work out a solution on their own, but should avoid trying to solve the problem or dictate a resolution.

And the winner is……unknown.
Not always, but many times in the conflict resolution process, clear winners and losers emerge. It is important that no one outside of the process (colleagues and peers) have an idea about which party was victorious. HR managers should protect the privacy of employees and the integrity of the process. Also, even though there is a “winner” and a “loser,” all people involved should feel like they have the tools, training, or systems in place to help them come out stronger on the other side of the issue.

Get over it!
Once the conflict is resolved, it should be in a permanent state of resolution. There is no grudge-holding, hard feelings, getting even, or revenge. It is the HR manager’s charge to make sure that both parties feel satisfied with the solution. They should also communicate the importance of accepting the outcome and moving forward.

Talk about it.
HR managers can help remove the stigma of office conflict by talking about it. Let employees know that it is okay to have disagreements. People will be heard, and the organization will support people in resolving their issues professionally. This is not a street fight or a bullying situation, but a specialized process for handling a business issue. Create a safe place for people to talk about resolving conflict.

Have a plan.
We’ve acknowledged that conflict will occur, so plan for it! Be prepared to have those difficult conversations with employees or managers. Develop set tools and processes for handling conflicts. Give people the training, coaching, tools, and support they need to work towards a solution.

Practice. Practice. Practice.
The more you do something—play the violin, throw a baseball, speak in front of a crowd—the better you get at it. The same is true for resolving conflicts. HR managers will become more skilled at facilitating conflict resolution the more often they practice. Employees and managers can also get more adept at it if HR managers can help them feel more confident and equipped to handle these issues when they arise.

The words “office conflict” can cause a number of different reactions in a space full of human resources professionals. Yet, if HR mangers can deal with conflict head-on and work with their employees to resolve it, they won’t have to fear conflict—and may even welcome it at their organizations.

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.