Resolving conflict in the workplace

Many of us try to avoid conflict in all aspects of our life, but in the workplace conflict is sometimes unavoidable. Try as you might to escape it, when you have a number of different personalities, values and work ethics at play – it can become treacherous territory if you fail to address it head on.

Conflict can affect everyone in a business whether you are a director, manager or supervisor, and issues can arise between teams or management and employees. Conflict could take the form of whispered comments or a full-blown discussion out in the open – however it takes shape, workplace conflict is something which businesses should be aware of how to manage and resolve effectively.

If you allow conflict to become a common occurrence in your business then you may find that employee motivation drops, behaviour changes, productivity falls, unexplained absences or employee stress is caused, people leave and you may receive an employment tribunal claim.

Conflict can present itself in a number of ways between individuals and groups or teams in the office. Issues may arise from poor management, treatment which is deemed unfair, job roles that don’t have defined parameters, poor workplace communication and environment, equal opportunities not being provided, harassment or bullying and employee training not being provided. Of course, there are many other instances where conflict can be bred, but the above are some of the most common reasons why.

A survey by the CIPD found that four in ten employees report some form of conflict at work in the past year, with 28% stating they have an ongoing difficult relationship in the workplace. With conflict already a present issue in offices across the UK, if it isn’t addressed then it can lead to widespread discontent among the business.

Our guide below will aid you in finding a resolution to conflict and provide guidance on how to manage difficult issues.

Define acceptable and unacceptable behaviour

The first step to resolving conflict is to prevent it from happening in the first instance. As an employer, it is your role to define what you expect from employees while they are under your employment.

You should ensure that you have a set policy in place which details what you deem acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace. This information should be provided to all employees and reinforced on a regular basis to clarify expectations.

It is also recommended that you have a clear strategy in place for how you will manage conflict. This should discuss how you will prevent conflict, your process for handling grievances, when you will intervene and when disputes may be passed on to another authority.

Be proactive

If you can spot potential conflict before it becomes a bigger problem, this could help to reduce the severity of the issue and minimise the longevity of the conflict. While it is only natural that some tensions may occur in work; as an employer you should identify any warning signs that indicate the issue may become out of hand if not dealt with immediately to minimise the issue.

Acas states that when faced with conflict many of us will respond in one of the following ways:

Fight – you respond in a challenging manner

Flight – you ignore the problem

Freeze – you become unsure of how to react

Face – you respond calmly and rationally, with a planned approach

When faced with a problem, our natural instincts often take over. However, it’s important to ensure that you take the ‘face’ response.

Conflict may be solved in the following ways:

Informal chat > informal investigation > independent mediation > follow internal formal procedure > seek Acas conciliator > tribunal hearing.

Communicate clearly

The cause of many workplace conflicts is often due to poor communication, so when resolving conflict, you should ensure that you communicate clearly to those involved. This should be done behind closed doors, in a calm and considered manner. It should also be agreed between parties that the sole purpose is to resolve the issue. It’s then advised that you take the time to discuss the issue openly and explain the action or process you are going to take.

In some cases, where minor conflict is in question, a quiet word may be all it takes to resolve the issue. This will take place in the form of an informal discussion, allowing the parties involved the opportunity to share their concerns. As an employer or manager in this situation, take the time to listen, understand each viewpoint and explore the issue, before reaching a decision on how the issue can be resolved.

As a manager, you should treat this as a fact-finding exercise; uncovering the root of the problem. Leave any personal issues aside, and allow the workplace issue to be the sole focus of the meeting. Your role is to listen and bring an understanding ear and voice of reason to the proceedings. Any personal view you, as a manager, hold should be cast aside, and you must ensure that you deal purely with the issue in questions.

You should also take the ‘what’s in it for me’ approach, as individuals are often concerned about how a situation will affect them, and what they set to gain or lose. Attempting to see the conflict from this viewpoint, will enable you to understand what motivates employees and how to proceed.

Keep in mind that you should listen to what employees are saying, put questions forward and provide the opportunity for a free response. Take care to show problems in a different light, build team spirit through shared connections or interests and lead by example through setting the right tone for the conversation.

Understand personal differences

Sometimes there may not be a clear solution to the problem, and it may be the case that personal differences and clashing personalities are the cause, rather than a specific work issue.

In these cases, it can be helpful to establish how each employee views their colleague’s actions and ways in which behaviours could be improved. Of course, this should be identified and addressed sensitively and allow each party to gain an understanding of what can be improved upon in order to avoid a personality clash in the future.

To take further action to understand your employees it may be worth investing in a behavioural assessment. This assesses the characteristics of an individual and can help colleagues to understand one another and their way of working.

Follow internal procedures

If an employee has made a formal complaint, then it is necessary for you to follow your internal procedures regarding grievances.

Your policy should be made available to all staff at any time and adhered to strictly.

Seek mediation

In some cases, it may be necessary for you to seek mediation from an external body. This will involve an independent and impartial person whose goal is to resolve the dispute and can be used in cases where no claim to an employment tribunal has been submitted or is likely.

A mediator will ask each party questions to help address the particular problem and aid them in reaching a resolution of their dispute. They will not provide counsel, defend legal rights or look into the history of a dispute. Instead, the goal is to maintain the employment relationship and avoid a ‘right or wrong’ stance. Ultimately, the aim is to move forwards and focus on how a working relationship can be forged and agree on a mutual solution.

Mediation is most effective before situations become set in their ways, so it could be useful to include a mediation step in your formal procedure.


If the conflict remains unsolved, then arbitration can provide a legally binding solution before the issue reaches an employment tribunal. An independent person will look into the case, and assess individual or group viewpoints and provide a final decision.

Unlike an employment tribunal which is public, arbitration is conducted in private. It is voluntary, so all parties must agree to partake and abide by the arbitrator’s decision.

Conflict in any form isn’t nice to have to deal with, however, let it become rooted in your organisation, and you may find that you are unable to address the issue at all. So, in order to tackle conflict and disputes head on, it is imperative that you take a proactive approach; seeking out issues where you can and facing them as soon as possible, in a calm and considered manner. Ensure that as a business you have a set policy on how grievances and conflict are dealt with and use this to guide the process.


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