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Resolving Conflicts at Work with Employees: A Two-Step Approach

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Handling negative staff behaviour and conflicts at work with employees is never easy – as most HR and line managers know. Ideally, you can prevent many instances by setting and enforcing fair and clear rules. But what do you do with occurrences that you weren’t able to keep from happening? 
If there’s only one aspect you’ll be able to remember, make it this one: Act immediately. Try to resolve small problems before they can become bigger or involve more people – or large problems before they can further escalate and maybe become unsolvable. More information on why it is so important to eliminate conflicts at work, you can find in the article How Business Benefits by Eliminating Organisational Conflicts. Apart from that, there are two steps involved in dealing with staff behaviour issues: The first is informal, the second – which hopefully will only rarely be necessary, if ever – a formal and structured process.


Step 1: Be empathetic and try to help the employee improve

When resolving conflicts at work with employees, in this first, and hopefully final, phase, you try to understand why the incident occurred and how it can be prevented in the future. You should tackle the situation with an open and positive attitude and see your role as a coach and mentor, not as a prosecutor:

  • Set up a face-to-face meeting where your employee can tell you their side of the story. Try to find out the reasons for their misconduct.
  • Establish whether your employee was aware he broke a rule with what he did. If it appears he wasn’t aware of any wrongdoing, critically ask yourself if your company’s code of conduct is comprehensible and accessible enough.
  • Ask the employee how he thinks similar problems can be avoided in the future. Make your own suggestions and offer support.
  • Come to a common understanding about the next steps.
  • After the meeting, write down minutes of your meeting and send them to your employee. Ask him to let you know if there is anything he would like to add or change.
  • Set up a second meeting a few months in advance where you can review together if the issue has been solved for good – or if additional measures would be beneficial.

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Step 2: If the first step isn’t successful, initiate a formal process

There are two reasons why it may be necessary to start a formal procedure: It can be that your efforts in step one just weren’t successful – or that the incident was so severe, to begin with that the only way to deal with it is formal. And while the first step is preferably conducted by the manager the person in question directly reports to, this second step should be HR’s main responsibility:

  • First, you need to compile the evidence as extensively and objectively as you can: Ask the employee and other people involved for written accounts of the incident and have them sign their statements.
  • Now set-up an official hearing. Send an invitation to every participant and include a brief description of the matter to be discussed. A person to take minutes of the meeting should be present as well as the line manager of the person charged with misconduct. The employee should be informed that they can choose a colleague or a representative of the works council to support them during the meeting.
  • For your preparation of the meeting, first, clarify for yourself what you would like to achieve with this hearing. It helps you come up with questions that will lead you towards the intended outcome. Also, think of possible answers to your questions and prepare follow-up questions. Try to think of all probable scenarios you can imagine for this meeting. It will prepare you mentally and boost your confidence and decisiveness.
  • At the beginning of the formal hearing, describe the incident, including all the personal accounts you have received and explaining your conclusions. Afterwards, allow the employee to present their view of the matter. When they have finished, close the meeting and tell them when they can expect a decision.
  • Together with the line manager, evaluate the information you have gathered and considered the employee’s final statement. Then come to a mutual decision. This decision should be communicated in writing.

Handling conflicts at work with employees involving staff misconduct is something most people would like to avoid being involved in. The temptation is great to ignore problems or to overlook minor rule violations. Resist this temptation and deal with the situation immediately. It will be so much easier than later on.


More interesting blog articles on the topic:

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