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Mary Pomerantz

How Prepared Are You for Internal Employee Conflicts?

Mary Pomerantz

Ms. Pomerantz is the CEO of TPG HR Services USA. She holds a Master’s in Human Resource Management (MHRM) and is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) and SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP). Mary also serves as CEO of Mary Pomerantz Advertising, one of the largest recruitment advertising agencies in the country. Earlier in her career, she was president of the 17th largest staffing firm in the country.

photo of businesspeople intensely starting at each other across a conference room table
People at work.

In a perfect world, all of your employees would get along with each other, they would never have a dispute with management, and your workplace would run as peacefully as a church sermon. Unfortunately, when large groups of people interact with each other for 40 or more hours per week, employee conflicts are bound to happen.

The key to defusing employee conflicts begins with effective leadership. Many times, supervisors and managers are unsure of how to handle these inevitabilities. Whether it’s over something as simple as a parking space or eating someone else’s food in the fridge; or it involves something serious like an employee not shouldering his fair share of work, it’s up to you to step in and subdue the situation. [1]

And if you think that workplace conflicts can’t turn into workplace violence – think again. Workplace violence is the fourth leading cause of workplace fatalities. [2]

  • Between 1992 and 2012, there were 14,770 workplace homicide victims, an average of over 700 per year. [3]
  • 2 million American workers report being victims of workplace violence each year. [4]
  • Violence is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace. [5]
  • 27 percent of all workplace violence is tied to domestic violence. [6]
Infographic about the amount of American workers who report being victims of workplace violence every year.

Workplace Violence Defined

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) is the primary U.S. organization that tracks the safety of employees in the workplace. Its definition for workplace violence includes “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors.”

There’s no way to predict when workplace violence will occur or who will be the target, but there have been some factors identified that may increase the risk.

  • Exchanging money with the public
  • Working with unstable individuals
  • Working alone or in isolated areas
  • Working in areas where alcohol is served
  • Working late at night

Occupations considered to be at a higher than average risk of experiencing workplace violence include delivery drivers, healthcare professionals, public service workers, customer service agents and law enforcement personnel. [7]

icon symbols representing office workers fighting with one another over something insignificant as coffee

Even Non-Violent Internal Employee Conflicts Still Hurt Morale

Sometimes even hidden internal employee conflicts which you may not even be aware of can still have an extremely negative effect on workforce morale. This, in turn, can negatively impact the productivity and retention of your workforce. When employees feel “picked-on” or disrespected – or simply see their co-workers being treated in these ways – it can make them far less likely to produce at their peak level of performance. These kind of internal employee conflicts can also make it difficult for groups of employees to work together, as individual employees may begin to assemble into “warring tribes” whose membership makes any project more difficult to complete if employees must work together across these “tribal lines.”

“People usually quit or leave their jobs because they have reached the absolute pinnacle of frustration. They may not show it. They may not display it. They may have great emotional intelligence, but they may not be able to say, ‘Oh look, I’m really frustrated’ [to their managers].”

Caroline Stokes, executive headhunter at talent acquisition firm FORWARD | Source: Tech Republic

In addition, the constant stress of unaddressed conflict can have a draining effect on all employees who are aware of it (not limited to those who are directly involved in a dispute), making it much more likely that employees will seek employment elsewhere in an effort to reduce their daily stress exposure. In this way unresolved employee conflicts can cause you to lose employees (and your investment in them) who are critical to the success of your company. That’s why it is critical that you keep an eye out for the signs of any brewing employee conflicts and address them immediately before they turn into something worse or cause negative consequences throughout your workforce.

What to Do When Employees Don’t Get Along

An illustration and message to be proactive in handling employee disputes.

Though most employee conflicts will not end in violence, it’s a good idea to be proactive in your management of conflicts rather than reactive. You don’t want your first action to come after a shouting match has ensued – you want to step in long before then and stop things from getting out of hand before they start.

Here are some tips for dealing with employee conflicts:

  • Try and let employees work it out first: You’re their boss, not their parent. You should encourage your employees to settle their disputes among themselves if possible. If you determine the situation is not too emotionally charged and both parties feel comfortable talking it out, you could reduce the potential drama by not getting involved.
  • Nip it in the Bud: If you find that the employees will not be able to work things out themselves, don’t wait to take action. Waiting too long will allow the conflict to fester and potentially bring in other workers.
  • Be Fair and Objective: Playing favorites at this point will only make the situation worse and potentially alienate other workers in your office. Don’t assume you know the whole story, don’t assume you know who’s at fault. Listen to both sides of the story before making any decisions.
  • Put it in Writing: Your workers won’t be a big fan, but it’s important to document each workplace incident. This way you can track employee behavior and determine if one or more of your employees seem to be office troublemakers.

How to Keep Yourself, Your Employees and Your Customers Safe

Aside from bringing in a profit and continuing to grow your business, the safety of your workers and clients should be your primary concern as a manager or business owner. People expect to be safe when they come into your place of business, and you should be doing everything in your power to make it that way.

While you can’t predict the future and you can’t tell exactly what’s in your employees’ heads, you can take steps to better prepare yourself and your staff:

icon of eye watching a person

Be Aware: Is one of your employees appearing to be increasingly belligerent or disorganized? Have you noticed a drastic behavior change? Being aware of subtle or not-so-subtle changes in your employees could allow you to disarm a situation before it gets any worse.

icon of hand holding a pen

Have a Written Policy: Not that you should have to tell people that violence isn’t allowed, but a stern reminder/warning in the employee handbook could deter a person who was considering violence.

icon of a warning triangle symbol with a lit bomb on the inside

Look for Warning Signs: Be wary of employees who complain about being treated unfairly, have been forced to wait for a raise/promotion, show signs of mental instability or those who have been recently disciplined. Workplace violence often follows some sort of trigger.

icon of person pointing to presentation screen for training

Training: Just as you need to be aware of potential dangers in the workplace, your employees, supervisors and managers need to be as well. Provide training on how to identify problem situations and what to do in the case of workplace violence.

icon of boss kicking an employee out the door

Terminate Carefully: It may be best to have another person present when you’re about to terminate one of your employees. Consider hiring extra security as well.

icon of video surveillance camera

Install Extra Surveillance, Lighting and Security Alarms: You can never be too careful. Workplace violence doesn’t only involve employees, it can also involve disgruntled clients and outsiders. Putting extra security obstacles in their way could deter them.

An HR Agency Can Help You Mitigate Employee Conflicts

Your employee recruiting, communications and relations will play a direct role in the prevention of workplace disputes and violence. Hiring individuals who fit your company culture and pass sufficient background checks will help screen out problem individuals before they ever enter your workplace. Likewise, careful employee communications and relations can alert you to employee conflicts before they have a chance to escalate and potentially get out of control.

The professionals at TPG HR Services USA have decades of combined experience in dealing with all types of employees and work environments. Allow us to spearhead your recruiting, hiring, onboarding and employee relations to ensure you have the safest and most cohesive office possible. Contact us today at 732-917-6000 to learn more.