I completed two seminars (one for California and the other nationwide) last week for BLR on conflict management in the workplace, and I thought it would be a good time share a few additional thoughts on the topic. I’ve encountered a lot of skepticism about this topic – especially from other lawyers – that it is a “touchy feely” topic. I am not claiming a manager can learn everything she needs to know about the topic in one seminar, but it is clearly a skill that supervisors and managers need to develop to be successful. If there was not conflict in the workplace, or if it was simple to deal with, managers would be out of a job. Thankfully for managers, this skill is not easily learned, and takes years of experience to develop. Here are a few tips to assist in the process.

Don’t avoid or ignore workplace conflicts.

Letting conflict fester will lead to litigation. If managers get involved in workplace conflicts early and often, it is more likely that the situation will be dealt with before a party thinks their rights have been violated and they need a lawyer.

Have a discussion with both workers involved in the conflict together.

Lay a few ground rules for the discussion:

  • Everyone will be heard (the supervisor will have to enforce this rule)
  • One speaker and one conversation at a time
  • Challenges are acceptable, must be respectful
  • Focus on issue (project, assignment, task at hand, etc.)
  • The workers can only use “I” statements NOT “YOU” statements (Example: “I received the information too late to include in my report.” Not: “You got it to me too late.”)
  • No personal attacks – criticism must be of acts, not the other person (Example: “That project is a waste of company time.” Not: “You are wasting my time.”)
  • Set clear guidelines on what is expected of the workers on a going forward basis (It is recommended to document these steps.)

Know when conflict crosses the line to create legal liability.

Managers should always be thinking about whether the conflict crosses the line from simple workplace disputes or personality conflicts into actionable harassment, discrimination or retaliation.

Provide reprimands the right way.

Managers should think through how to approach an employee when giving them a warning, either verbal or written. Here are a few suggestions:

  • The warnings should not be administered in front of other employees.
  • The manager should think through how the discussion will go, and possible responses to different reactions from the employee.
  • Set out the clear expectation of what the employee needs to do to correct the problem.
  • Document the warnings – even verbal warnings to employees. If the warning is a written warning, have the employee sign the warning.  If they refuse to sign it, record on the document that the employee refused to sign.