Managing conflict in the workplace is always tricky. But it can be especially tough in a small business, where teams are small, people are working hard, and there’s no HR department to step in when things get tense.
As a small business owner, handling staff conflict may feel like a distraction from your never-ending to-do list. But you can’t let employee conflict fester. Especially in a still-tight labor market, if you let an argument simmer, you run the risk of losing one or both of the people involved.
Conflict can also be a symptom of a larger problem with your workplace culture, and in some cases can leave you open to legal problems. So, it’s more than worth your time to dig in, figure out what’s going on, and see if you can reestablish a good working relationship.
Ultimately, the ins and outs of who said what don’t matter as much as reestablishing a professional working relationship between the parties involved. You don’t necessarily need to get a play-by-play of an entire conversation—you just need enough information to understand the underlying disagreement. The exception to this rule, of course, is any kind of harassment. If an employee is complaining of harassment or discrimination, take their complaint seriously, take careful notes, and take disciplinary action as quickly as you can.
Be empathetic, but avoid taking sides. Hear them out and then guide them to refocus on their job, their career goals, and the success of the team over this personal disagreement. Remind them that, honestly, they don’t have to like everyone on the team–they just have to work together in a professional manner.
Try to give the employees involved in a conflict a brief cooling-off period where they’re on separate shifts or assigned to separate areas, if you can. If the conflict is largely a personality clash, keeping the parties apart may be the simplest solution. Apps like Homebase can help by streamlining the scheduling process.
If and when these employees do need to interact, a mediated conversation may help. Use time-tested conflict resolution strategies like having both parties use “I statements” (“I feel disrespected when…” instead of “You always…”). Encourage empathic listening by asking each person to summarize the other’s position. Then guide them to brainstorm possible solutions. Just make sure both parties are ready to go into this kind of conversation without aggression or defensiveness—a negative tone will undermine your efforts to reach a positive solution.
We all bring our own personal baggage to workplace conflict. Some of us are more comfortable with open disagreement than others. But whatever your personal style is, remember that disagreement can be healthy. Two people who care about your business disagreeing over priorities or arguing over the best way to get the work done could actually be a good thing, if handled well. It’s when things get personal that conflict becomes unhealthy.
Ultimately, the best way to deal with employee conflict is to stop it before it starts, by creating an overall atmosphere of trust and open dialogue. Remember that your ultimate goal is to retain your best employees. Make it clear that you have an open-door policy for employees to share ideas for improving the way work gets done, and train your managers to do the same. Make sure employees are getting plenty of positive feedback and getting recognized for their hard work. And, if you haven’t already, consider writing an employee handbook so that you’re not stuck trying to figure out how to handle an employee conflict once it’s already started—better to have a policy in place from the start.
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This information is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal, financial, or tax advice. Readers should contact their attorneys, financial advisors, or tax professionals to obtain advice with respect to any particular matter.
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