By Key Business Advisors
Human Resources

By Ray Mather
HR Advisor, Key Business Advisors

Key Business Advisors How to Manage Employee ConflictConflicts are bound to arise in the workplace just as they are bound to occur in everyday life. They may be due to, among other things, a clash of personalities, unfulfilled expectations or bad behaviour. Whatever its source, workplace conflict represents a serious issue for business. It can lead to problems such as high staff turnover, high levels of absenteeism, poor work performance, workers compensation claims for stress and anxiety, and complaints of bullying and harassment.

It is important that workplace conflict is not ignored, rather that it is managed appropriately and in a timely manner. Two examples of workplace conflict are briefly discussed below.

Example 1: Conflict between employees
Fiona and Robert work in a retail store. Fiona is a long-serving staff member and performs her role as a Customer Service Advisor competently. Robert is a new staff member and does not yet perform his role as a Customer Service Advisor competently. Whenever they work together, complaints are made to management. Fiona complains that Robert does not do anything right, and Robert complains that Fiona picks on him. As an employer, you have observed that at times Robert makes mistakes and that Fiona pulls Robert up on his mistakes.

In terms of managing this conflict between Fiona and Robert, the employer should act fairly and reasonably without taking sides or demonising people. Additionally, an employer should take the following steps:

  1. Fully establish the facts (who, what, where, when, how, why);
  2. Understand and adhere to any workplace policies or procedures regarding the management of grievances;
  3. If the issue cannot be resolved between the individuals concerned or with the involvement of the employer, seek the assistance of HR professionals.

Workplace conflict may not be easily or quickly resolved. Even in the above example, the employer may need to work through a range of issues such as the reason for Robert making mistakes; whether Robert learns from past mistakes; whether Fiona exhibits the correct behaviours when raising these mistakes with Robert; whether Fiona might benefit from training and development opportunities; whether either or both employees would benefit from Employee Assistance Counselling. Nevertheless, in many cases, workplace conflict can be resolved with hard work, a clear mind, and time.

Example 2: Conflict between employee and employer
Justin works in a contact centre as a Customer Contact Officer. Soon after completing the minimum employment period, you (the employer) notice that Justin’s standard of work begins to deteriorate. He develops an attitude towards customers, abrupt with some and condescending to others. At times, he arrives late to work on rostered shifts; moreover, Justin missed last month’s sales target and it looks like he will miss the current month’s as well.

You decide to initiate a performance improvement and disciplinary process and invite Justin to attend the first meeting. Justin attends the first meeting, where you highlight your concerns regarding his performance and the specific aspects of his performance which are unsatisfactory and require improvement. Justin responds by claiming that you are bullying him.

In terms of managing this conflict with Justin, whilst it might be quicker and easier for the employer to cease the performance improvement and disciplinary process, ceasing the process is not necessarily going to bring about the best outcomes. An employer should not ignore performance that is unsatisfactory and harming the business. The Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) makes clear that reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner is not bullying.[1]

An employer should ensure that an employee is notified of any deficiency regarding their performance; be given an opportunity to respond to those alleged deficiencies; be given a warning about unsatisfactory performance and be given an opportunity to improve. Of course, it can be tricky dealing with the performance improvement and disciplinary process and a bullying complaint, so if you require assistance with managing this type of conflict, seek HR professional help.


[1] s 789FD(2).

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