One of the most annoying things to handle as a manager is dealing with conflicts between employees.  I say annoying because, more often than not, these are petty misunderstandings which one or both parties completely blew out of proportion.  I’m assuming for most managers, the initial response is to simply allow the ones involved to work it out.

The trouble with letting your employees deal with these things is that you’ll never be able to predict the outcome of the spat where employees’ egos and emotions are concerned.  Ergo, it would be best to diffuse the situation before things get from annoying to full-blown ridiculous.  However, it would do you well to wait for the opportune time.  If you jump in before the issue is serious enough to address, you’d be perceived as too much of a “mommy”. On the other hand, if you don’t jump in quick enough, things can quickly be blown out of proportion.

So before you go out and stop a spat between employees, here are a few things to take into consideration:

Is it personal?

There’s a really big difference between squabbling about one’s personality, and squabbling about one’s productivity, work choices, and work ethic.  Based on experience, most spats in the office tend to stem from work-related issues.  Although, there will be certain employees who you’d hear a lot of phrases like “He/she’s great, and I like him/her, but…” from.  Learn to differentiate spats like “That imbecile doesn’t know how to save money.  We’ve talked about this.  We’re supposed to switch to a virtual pbx because we need to save “x” amount within the next 6 months.  If we keep using the same phone system, we’ll never reach that target, and we won’t be able to purchase the projected need of x materials”, from spats like “You incompetent Neanderthal.  If you can’t give any useful input, then just shut your mouth.  It’s clear that you have no idea how to save money”.

Is it affecting productivity and professionalism?

Is your team behind schedule, or missing deadlines?  If conflict is hindering your team from performing well, then you should have been involved in the conflict yesterday.  The underlying issue should be addressed now.  However, it should also be treated with caution.

Are the involved parties in the same position/level in the company?

No matter how informal your company culture is, it is always going to be a big deal if conflicts are between people of authority and subordinates.  There are always two ugly sides to this coin.  In one hand, there can be the possibility of abuse of authority.  On the other hand, there is the possibility of a subordinate causing mayhem to get to the top.  Both are equally serious, and these issues should be handled with care.

Is anyone committing a corporate or federal offense?

This is something you always have to be on top of.  Some conflicts arise because of things such as unintentional as lapses in reporting sales, or as serious as harassment.  Either way, these are the kind of sticky situations that could easily blow up in your face.  By this I mean, lawsuits galore.

How to Deal

  • Speak with both parties separately (and privately) before getting them together in a room.  This way, you can discuss the conflict without interruption.
  • Supervise and place them in the same project to resolve the conflict and let them learn to work together.  Make a specific plan and rules for both parties to follow.
  • Inform the HR about the situation and what you plan to do about it.  This is so they can prepare certain measures and, should things escalate, you can skip the entire ordeal and go straight to the formal complaints/disciplinary actions through the formal HR channels.
  • Make it crystal clear that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated and that disciplinary actions will be taken against them, should it continue.
  • Follow up on both parties after the meeting, and find out if the conflict has been resolved and there are no hard feelings harbored.
  • Make it clear to them that you are open for communication, should they need to talk about the work-related conflict.  Remember, work-related, not personal.  You’re their boss, not their therapist.  Keep the communication lines open, but have respectable limitations.