How to avoid employee conflict and deal with it effectively

Mar 23, 2012 | Good Management

Most arguments between colleagues are usually fairly trivial and can be quickly resolved but if left unchecked they can escalate to compromise productivity, morale and in the most serious cases lead to violent outbursts.  This may sound extreme, but an employer was recently found to be vicariously liable for a violent assault in the workplace.

In that particular case there was a history of poor performance and conflict so it is not just good practice to actively manage workplace conflict but good sense. With that in mind, here are five key things to remember to avoid conflict where possible, and deal with it effectively when it happens.


How often has a simple misunderstanding been the cause of upset? People communicate in many ways but one thing is for certain: how a message is delivered and how it lands can often be two very different things.  Whatever method you choose to communicate you should always check the message has been received and understood.

Performance Management

If you have policies and procedures in place for managing performance this will help reduce conflict because everyone will know where they stand and what is expected of them.  If you have minimum standards of behaviour this can be an effective starting point for managing any undesirable behaviour that cannot be resolved with an informal chat.

Even if you don’t have prescribed minimum standards the chances are your organisation has an established culture that substantially influences how people behave and which you control and influence through your management style and by example.

Get in there early

The main thing to remember is that if you avoid difficult conversations conflict is unlikely to be resolved – in fact it is more likely to grow into a bigger problem.

If employees are unable to resolve issues between themselves then management should step in quickly.  Two employees not getting on can have a devastating effect on the whole team, particularly in a small business, and avoiding it and hoping the bad atmosphere goes away in time is unlikely to work.

Intervention does not need to be heavy-handed but equally a serious situation may need to be dealt with using the disciplinary process or even reporting to the police in more extreme circumstances.

What kind of intervention will work?

If the employees involved are usually good performers who behave in a reasonable way then giving them five minutes to resolve their disagreement may be enough. You may need to informally mediate the situation by sitting the parties down to talk through their differences but valued and reasonable employees are most likely to respond well to your efforts.

If those involved are not good performers or have a history of being difficult or having “personality clashes” then you probably need to take more formal action if you are not already.  Again this could be mediation by a manager or a neutral third party but if there is no improvement or it is part of a pattern of poor behaviour then you may need to consider formal performance management and/or disciplinary action.

When dismissal is an option

Where individuals have short service (i.e. less than the minimum required to make a claim for unfair dismissal) you may need to seriously consider if that person is right for your organisation.  Sometimes people just don’t fit in and letting someone go may be preferable to investing the time and effort trying to change something as fundamental as behaviour.

None of these are easy options but remember prevention is always better than cure, so communicate and be clear about expectations. If prevention isn’t possible, then as with so many employee problems, the earlier you address it the better for everyone.

If you have concerns about how your business manages conflict or need advice about specific instances or individuals contact us at [email protected].