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February 27, 2012
How HR Should Respond to and Resolve Conflict

In order to keep your employees safe and happy, and to keep your organization productive and efficient, it’s crucial for you and them to understand how to manage and prevent workplace conflict. In a BLR webinar titled "Workplace Conflict Resolution: Peacekeeping Tools for HR and Supervisors," Eve Framinan and Jonathan E. O’Connell explain HR's role in responding to employee conflict and what steps it should take to conduct effective complaints and investigations.

Once you’re in a situation with employee conflict, it’s important to act quickly. Framinan explained that "unhealthy workplace behaviors rarely really resolve themselves." A lack of action moves the bar on what is acceptable. In a related article, Framinan and O’Connell provided general tips on how to resolve conflict as well as guidance on training managers. Here they provide guidance on the appropriate HR response upon receiving a complaint or being notified of a conflict:

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  • Be objective
  • Listen before considering next steps
  • Talk to other parties
  • Stay open-minded
  • Understand who is involved
  • Know the circumstances
  • Check for applicable policies
  • Refrain from implying more than is presented; avoid words like harassment or discrimination
  • Know what laws might apply
  • Recognize when it’s more than simple conflict (if there is potential that it will escalate into something serious)
  • Don’t offer opinions or judgment
  • Presenting the issue is just the surface, and things like personal values and experiences, interests and needs, unknown expectations, self-esteem, or previous issues or resentments can all be factors

Preparing For and Having the Conflict Resolution Conversation

So, now you’re involved and need to have a difficult conversation with employees. How do you prepare? Here are some tips for both your preparation and what to do while holding the conversation.

Preparing for the conversation
  • Ask yourself if you are the right person to address the situation; doing so requires time, experience and knowledge. Will you be seen as objective? Sometimes you need to bring in someone else with better experience for the situation.
  • Use a script, including probing questions.
  • Rehearse what you will say.
  • Know yourself: what will be stressful for you?
  • Pick the best time of day to meet.
  • Take precautionary measures as necessary.
Holding the conversation
  • Ask good questions to get clarification, but don’t interrogate.
  • Careful communication includes listening without interrupting and using "I" phrases when you can. Avoid emotion laden words like why, never or always.
  • Watch body language – both yours and theirs.
  • Allow silences.
  • Offer time for composure or cooling off.
  • Stay focused and refrain from preparing your next comment instead of listening.
  • Don’t jump to solutions too soon during the meeting.
  • Stay calm; don’t take the bait to escalate the situation.
  • Avoid letting the employee shift the conversation.
  • Restate what you’ve heard for clarification and understanding.
  • Don’t make promises.
  • When facilitating between the parties, be sure to include all parties and set guidelines for respectful dialogue. Let all parties state their needs, and be patient to let the parties suggest solutions. Help them agree to next steps, and then follow up to ensure implementation.

How To Resolve Conflict: HR Next Steps

Now you’ve had the conversation, what should you do next?

  • Document the meeting
  • Look to your mentor or professional resources for advice to craft a solution
  • Bring in third parties such as coaches
  • If in doubt, involve legal counsel
  • Advise appropriate internal parties as needed
  • Follow up with all parties
  • Manage terminations to avoid conflict

For more information on how to resolve conflict, order the webinar recording. To register for a future webinar, visit http://catalog.blr.com/audio.

Eve Framinan, TPO’s President and CEO, combines business experience, equanimity and a passionate belief that people are the best, and in some cases the only true way to differentiate her clients in their marketplaces.

Jonathan O’Connell, an associate with Holland & Knight, practices primarily in the area of labor and employment litigation. His experience includes representing management clients in matters involving claims of racial and sexual discrimination, wrongful discharge claims, federal and state wage and hour compliance, enforcement of non-competition, non-solicitation and confidentiality agreements, and collective bargaining agreements.


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