Many employers regulate workplace conflict through human resources initiatives such as an employee relations program. Employee relations is the HR area, or discipline, that addresses workplace issues, employee concerns and supervisory matters that can lead to conflict. HR staff specifically trained to work in the employee relations area generally are experts in conflict management. In small businesses where there isn't a dedicated HR department, there should be a designee for handling issues that can turn into workplace conflict.
Workplace issues include employee concerns and complaints about working conditions, unresolved supervisor-employee and employee-employee disputes and general issues concerning employers’ policies and practices. Workplace conflict happens regardless of the company size — personalities clash just as easily in small companies as they do in large conglomerates. Conflict can emerge from misunderstandings or out of intentional disregard for company practices. Either way, regulating conflict requires preventive measures as well as tactical steps to controlling workplace behavior.
A small, casual workplace may operate just fine without an employee handbook or formal policies; however, implementing formal policies is an effective means to regulating workplace conflict even in small businesses. Large organizations have formal policies that explain acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the workplace. Regardless of the employer’s size, structure or hierarchy, an employee handbook and formal policy statements establish parameters and guidelines for employee behavior.
Before workplace conflict can be regulated or controlled in any way, there must be a way to identify it. Employers use a number of techniques to identify workplace issues, including confidential employee opinion surveys, anonymous reporting mechanisms such as employee hotlines, one-on-one and all-staff meetings and focus groups. Key to identifying workplace issues is establishing trust in HR staff and credibility in the HR department's swift handling of employee issues. Small businesses may have an easier time of identifying issues by virtue of the size of the organization, which may make conflict more transparent or more readily noticed.
Both full-blown investigations into employee misconduct or simple inquiries about employee concerns are effective ways to regulate workplace conflict. Conducting an investigation sends the message that you intend to resolve conflict in the workplace and that HR will immediately handle complaints. An investigation sheds light on issues that underlie conflict and give HR staff the foundation from which to resolve conflict. Gathering statements from employees, conducting research on company policies and assessing the credibility of witnesses to workplace conflict puts virtually everyone on notice that HR is serious about maintaining a pleasant and safe work environment.
Employee training can be an extension of the company’s formal written policies or a standalone measure to regulating workplace conflict. Training is as effective in large organizations as in small businesses — and recommended for both. Regular training on fair employment practices, leadership skills and interpersonal relationships covers areas out of which workplace conflict arises. In addition to new employee orientation, employers who provide regular training to employee groups and supervisory groups are better able to control errant behavior that underlies workplace conflict.
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.