This may come as a shock so I hope you’re sitting as you read this: You’re not perfect. It’s true – you aren’t infallible. And if you, the captain of the ship, are imperfect, how can you expect perfection from your employees? They’re only human, just like you. Your employees are going to make mistakes. Your managers are going to make mistakes. You are going to make mistakes. These mistakes (and human nature itself) can and will lead to employee disputes so it is imperative that you learn how to handle conflict and arrive at resolutions. Understanding that not all employee disputes involve coworkers is also important. It’s your responsibility to come up with a strategy for you and your managers to handle disputes, and no, that strategy can’t always be to just fire people. Let’s set aside that particular solution for now and take a look at employee dispute best practices.
Believe it or not (note: believe it), creating an employee handbook can help you avoid a number of employee disputes. Not all conflict can be avoided but documented policies can keep some disputes from escalating in severity. An effective handbook is written clearly, defines acceptable and unacceptable behavior plainly, outlines all of your policies and expectations, and includes a section on conflict resolution of some type. Include a section for them to sign acknowledging that they’ve read and understand the handbook, or have them sign a separate acknowledgment you can put in a file. Why? Because when the inevitable happens and a dispute arises you’ll be able to point to the employee’s acknowledgement of your policies and then re-explain the applicable guidelines after you’ve heard them out. It’s equally important that you document employee disputes and keep them on file.
Additionally, make it clear to your employees that ownership and management are approachable and there to listen. By the way, that is one of the keystones of good management: the embracing of conflict so that it may be resolved. With any luck (skill, really) it will be resolved amicably. Do you know how the companies with the happiest customers and employees view conflict? They see it as an opportunity for teaching, learning and development. It’s great to innovate, but sometimes you should emulate.
Before we get into it, let me make it extremely clear that we are not attorneys. Some disputes will have legal ramifications. This is where having an attorney you can turn to comes in handy. What we’re discussing here is the first stages of handling an employee dispute. If you find that the issue is heading towards lawsuit territory, lawyer up.
Now Talk it Out
Quite often people just want to feel as though they’re being heard, so learn to be a good listener. If an employee has gotten worked up, ask them what’s wrong and let them get it out. This may actually lead to even more hostility at first but don’t let that deter you from letting your employees speak their minds. Nobody involved will arrive at a solution if the conflict isn’t explored fully.
It’s important that you and your managers have an open mind when listening to an employee’s issue or side of a conflict. Resolutions are often predicated on the concept of common ground so it’s important to understand the point of view of an employee involved in a dispute. If you’ve created an employee handbook you can remind them of the aforementioned acknowledgement they signed and go over the policies again. However, because problems should be viewed as opportunities, realize that some conflicts are going to require the review and perhaps revision of existing policies. Rigid adherence to the rules isn’t always in your best interest.
Snap Them Back to Reality
Unless you were born this instant, you’ve either been a participant in or overheard an argument that, when cooler heads prevailed, seemed absolutely ridiculous. It’s widely accepted that there are 5 stages or phases of conflict:
- Latent stage: Participants not yet fully aware that they’re involved in a conflict.
- Perceived stage: Participants are fully aware that they’re involved in a conflict.
- Felt stage: At least one participant in a conflict is feeling stress and anxiety.
- Manifest stage: The conflict can be observed and perceived by others.
- Aftermath stage: An outcome is reached, either resolution or dissolution.
The majority of people are not at their best when they’re feeling stressed out and anxious (third stage), so when a conflict finally manifests (fourth stage) it should be no surprise that the participants become unable or unwilling to see the bigger picture. You may discover that the participants are laser focused on something that appears hugely important to them but is, in reality, rather meaningless in the grand scheme of things. This is where management skills come into play. When an employee or employees are focusing on a single pixel rather than the entire high-resolution image, it’s your job (or the job of your managers) to change their view. Uncover the real issue, remind them of the bigger picture, and help them to see that picture more clearly.
Let Them Resolve It
Ideally, you or your managers are able to recognize conflict before it reaches the fourth stage. If you’re really good (psychic, basically) you may detect it while it’s still in the first stage. It’s much more likely that you’ll pick up on stage two, of course. You could step in right then or you could apply what you know about the employee or employees involved and determine the severity of the situation. Does the issue actually stem from the workplace or is it being caused by an outside source? Is there a better than decent chance that the participant or participants can resolve the problem without management swooping in? If the answer is yes, let them reach that resolution on their own.
Don’t Ignore Them
No doubt you have at least one employee that you or your managers find…difficult. Odds are that this employee is no stranger to workplace disputes. As unpleasant as this person may be, you and your managers won’t benefit from ignoring them. Sure, you could just fire such an employee. The smarter play, however, is to make certain they don’t feel alienated. Include them. Communicate with them. Make them feel heard. Doing so may result in a 180 in their perception of the workplace and their behavior. You should consider that employees who feel ignored are more likely to create legal trouble for you, something you obviously want to avoid.
Don’t Play Favorites
Just like you have an employee or employees that you may prefer to avoid, you probably have an employee or employees that are your favorite or favorites. Playing favorites can be just as bad as alienating certain employees. In fact, it can be worse because it can become an issue that causes an employee dispute.
As an example, consider what can happen when an employee feels they’re untouchable because they’ve become a favorite of management. It may sound silly but that employee can become a sort of “unofficial” leader, someone who is able to undermine your managers, impose their own agenda, and unravel your team.
You also need to avoid playing favorites with management. Deferring rather than delegating to a manager leads to distrust among your employees. If your employees don’t trust you, they won’t respect you, and that only fosters a hostile work environment. And what do hostile work environments breed? Employee disputes and lawsuits. Have everyone’s roles outlined and defined. Clearly state your expectations. Ensure that everyone is operating within your guidelines. And then refrain from playing favorites; it only serves to destabilize and demoralize.
It’s up to you whether you’ll choose to view handling employee disputes as beneficial or unpleasant. The best in the business are lifelong students; they want to learn and understand that conflict can be an excellent teacher. Your managers should be eager to identify conflict and deal with it. Doing so makes them problem solvers, which makes them more valuable to you and helps make your business stronger.