It’s a fact of life: Some people just don’t get along. And that’s OK unless petty disagreements or personality clashes crop up at work and threaten teamwork and productivity. You can’t make people like each other, but you can help them handle their differences and get on with doing their jobs.
If your organization prides itself on its culture, employees may have a distorted idea of how they should feel about each other as people. Explain to employees that no one expects them to become bosom buddies with their co-workers, says Dana Smith, president and CEO of HR outsourcing firm Exalt Resources. It’s great when team members genuinely enjoy each other’s company, but employers’ minimum expectation should be that employees treat each other with respect and dignity. “This can be achieved, even if you don’t particularly like another person’s style or disagree with their mode of operation,” Smith says.
Employees need to understand the difference between a personality clash and discrimination, retaliation or harassment, Smith says. Poor judgment in the heat of the moment doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of an actionable offense, for example.
Squabbles between employees really should be handled by their managers, experts say. Ensure your managers are trained to facilitate conflict resolution among employees. If employees and managers don’t have the skills to manage their own conflicts, they will depend on others for resolution, says Dianne Crampton, president of TIGERS Success Series, which provides consulting on team building and collaboration. When someone else steps in to facilitate a resolution, it often turns out to be a short-term solution that doesn’t get to the root of the problem.
Meet and Listen
If managers can’t handle a situation, or if the conflict involves a manager, mediation may be necessary. Joe Campagna, owner of My Virtual HR Director, recommends meeting with each employee individually so you can get both sides of the story. “When you meet one-on-one with each employee, your goal should be to not judge — not yet, anyway. After years of doing this, I can tell you there is always another side to the story, so reserve anger, judgment or action until the process is complete.”
Follow the Model
In mediation, HR serves as a neutral party to help employees find common ground and work toward a solution. The employees in question meet with an HR representative and agree to listen respectfully throughout the process. Crampton offers these steps:
- Remain neutral. HR should never take sides, but remaining objective is especially important when you’re trying to help people resolve a conflict.
- Let both people present their side without interruption. Ask open-ended questions to drill down to the root causes of the conflict.
- Clarify each person’s position. Ask each person to explain the other’s side to ensure both parties have a clear understanding of the problem at hand.
- Work toward a solution. Identify common ground and ask each person to explain how they would approach building this common ground.
- Clarify again. Check with everyone to ensure you’re all on the same page about common ground and how to get there.
- Put it in writing. Work together to draft a written agreement and have both parties sign it.
Throughout the process, you may find there are procedural misunderstandings within the company that create conflict, Crampton says. For example, one department may be under the impression that reports are generated a certain way and members may make impossible demands on others. Be open to finding ways to improve processes as you work on conflict resolution. And identify training opportunities that can help managers — and even HR professionals — improve their conflict resolution and mediation skills.