Top tips for HR to manage workforce conflict

The world has been through a lot since the start of the pandemic, and it’s invariably led to many strong opinions about the best way to manage things. Whether it’s disagreeing about COVID-19 vaccinations, arguing about when people should come back to on-site working (if at all), debating the merits and ethics of business travel or overseas holidays … it’s easy for colleagues to quickly become embroiled in sensitive conversations. And these issues are on top of the normal personality clashes people experience at work, and inevitable differences in opinion about the best way to get a job done.

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Differences in opinion can easily morph into outright conflict between colleagues – or employees and leadership – with HR then being called in to mediate. HR’s first responsibility with conflict management should be to do what they can to stop disagreements escalating to this point.

Help employees deescalate conflict

Positive conflict can be great for business and generating new ideas. But it’d be prudent for HR to consider providing line managers and employees with guidance on how to constructively handle difficult conversations that look like they’re about to degrade into an argument.

HR could suggest courses on handling such situations, or books such as Kim Scott’s Radical Candour. Giving your workforce the tools they need to nip conflict in the bud saves a lot of angst down the line.

Avoid unnecessary arguments

Another way that HR can help reduce conflict is by making company values and the leadership team’s stance on key issues very clear.

Values should be published somewhere that is easy for all employees to access, and reinforced on a regular basis so they’re kept front of mind. Where possible, HR and business leaders should also regularly communicate the leadership team’s view (even if it’s a work in progress) on key issues that affect their workforce; for example, plans about when/if you want people to come back to on-site working.

Sometimes there’s a fear about communicating with staff before a firm decision has been made. But simply telling your workforce what’s being considered, and the very fact that it is being discussed, can reduce conflict. This avoids people further down the decision-making chain having disagreements about issues that are in fact out of their hands. And once decisions have been made, if an employee disagrees with it, they can raise it through the right channels, rather than having heated arguments with colleagues or line managers about the direction the company has decided to take.

Training and tech tools for HR

Even after doing everything possible to help staff manage disagreements themselves, or to avoid arguments by communicating values and the company’s position on workforce-related issues, it’s likely HR will still be called on to help with more serious conflicts.

All HR professionals who liaise with members of the business one on one should have a very strong understanding of conflict management. If it’s important for staff to know how to have difficult conversations, it’s even more essential for HR. If training or reference materials are going to be recommended to the business, HR should attend/read them first, and learn more about the topic as needed. HR professionals should also seek to learn from each other, understanding what’s worked for their colleagues in the past, and sharing their own experiences as appropriate.

Being skilled in handling conflict should be paired by HR with the right tools.

A good HR system with a performance management module, like Cezanne HR, enables the recording of conversations between employees and their line managers. If an HR professional needs to step in to assist with a conflict, it’s much easier for them to get up to speed quickly if there’s a history available of previous discussions on the issue.

Having a great tool for check ins and performance management can also help HR in persuading line managers and employees to have regular catch ups in the first place, so concerns can be aired before then descend into conflict – be that between the manager and their employee, or the employee and their colleagues.

Other ways an HR system can help

Other HR tech tools that might be useful in avoiding conflict include clock in/clock out technology, helping to remove ambiguity and to avoid arguments about when people have started and finished work.

Onboarding software can also be very useful in setting expectations for new employees and reducing misunderstandings down the line.

And absence management software can help keep holiday approvals fair – we discuss this in our article ‘Why HR needs to get on top of holiday absence management now

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