To deal with workplace conflict, HR departments need to have a formalized written policy that details what is considered inappropriate workplace conduct and that is easily accessible to all employees. A businesses conflict resolution policy also needs to set out clear procedures for investigating noncompliance reports and disciplinary action. Companies with weak workplace conflict policies may lose talented and productive workers who are simply looking to escape an unpleasant coworker whose negative behavior goes unchecked.

Importance of Formalizing Workplace Conflict Policy

Compiling a detailed document for the reference of front-line managers and employees, in general, is a tool for successfully dealing with workplace conflict. Having a clear policy. as well as a system for reporting infractions and investigating them, ensures that no employee “falls through the cracks.” Upon establishing a comprehensive conflict investigation and resolution policy, human resources needs to be empowered to enforce disciplinary measures based upon infractions, or else workers will ignore the policy. Companies struggling to find a place to start when designing their workplace conflict policy should consider adopting a zero-tolerance policy, which makes it clear to all employees that workplace harassment is unacceptable. Having a zero-tolerance policy might reduce the chance of complaint reviewers making uninformed judgment calls.

The Role of HR in Dispute Mediation

Human resources is the second point of contact in any workplace interpersonal dispute, the first being an employee's direct supervisor – unless the conflict is between the employee and the supervisor. In a large company, having a dispute mediation specialist can be advantageous. If a dispute is severe enough that the front-line supervisor cannot immediately resolve the situation, both conflicting employees can be referred to a dispute mediation specialist in human resources. Human resources should speak separately with each party; including both parties in the discussion might generate intimidating behavior, either real or perceived. The human resources specialist decides whether the complaint warrants an investigation or should be sent to an external law enforcement agency for review. A formal warning should be issued to an accused employee and a note placed in his file, in case future complaints are filed against him. The human resources officer should not dismiss complaints simply because they are difficult to investigate. Some incidents may require investigation through an internal affairs specialist or exterior security consultant at the discretion of the senior human resources officer.

When to Confront and When to Remain Neutral

A human resources officer investigating a complaint should remain neutral until some proof of the violation can be verified by irrefutable evidence. Obtaining irrefutable evidence may require special investigation, such as installing security cameras or reviewing workplace computer use. Only after proving an employee is at fault in an interpersonal conflict should the manager or human resources officer take disciplinary action.

Consequences of a Policy Infraction

The least egregious form of disciplinary action should be a written formal reprimand with clearly defined consequences for repeat infractions. When severe infractions are suspected but not proven, human resources might suspend an employee pending an investigation. Even if the allegations prove to be false, paying the suspended employee for his downtime might be less costly than ignoring the issue and possibly facing a costly lawsuit filed by the slighted employee. More severe infractions, such as physical or sexual abuse in the workplace, should be grounds for immediate dismissal if proven. Knowing, for example, that harassment in the workplace could lead to termination could be a strong deterrent to inappropriate behavior.