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Frontline Supervisor: High-Conflict Employees

Frontline Supervisor: High-Conflict Employees

On 21 Nov 2014, in Management, coaching, employee development, Workplace

Each month, “The Balance Sheet” provides questions and answers from experts on a topic that’s important to you as a manager. Please feel free to share this information with other colleagues who also manage people.

Q. Employees in conflict can be very disruptive to the work group. I have no problem making a referral to BJC EAP, but supervisors should attempt to resolve conflicts first. The question is how early to step in, right? Also, does a “formula” exist for doing it right?

A. There is no sure formula for resolving employee conflicts, but there is ample evidence from the world of work to guide supervisors in how to manage workplace conflict. One key observation is that you don’t always have to intervene. In fact, intervening early can make conflicts more problematic for you and your work unit. If the conflict is not interfering with workflow and productivity, and it isn’t prone to violence or associated with a serious employment practices allegation, then let employees work it out for themselves. Two people in conflict are capable of resolving differences, but it isn’t easy, and it’s not typically fun. That means they would love to have you join them as a rescuer. Coming to the rescue, however, can breed more conflicts because employees can count on you to bail them out. Avoiding conflict then becomes less important for employees. Engaging in conflicts that become more frequent becomes the norm.

Q. I referred two employees to BJC EAP because they argue frequently and disrupt the work unit. Things are smooth sailing now, but if problems return, should I refer them again, discipline them or call it quits? How many times should I refer misbehaving employees? When is enough, enough?

A. Decide what to do about the recurring conflict in conjunction with your advisors. There is no pat answer to how many times you should attempt an EAP referral, unless an arrangement you’ve made precludes it. For example, you made a “last chance” or “firm choice” agreement with your employee. As a manager, you must make judgment calls based upon the experience and wisdom you’ve acquired in your position. Consider the pattern of improvement that your employees make, whether you believe the goal is being met and whether the negative effects of the behavior are continuing to affect the work unit. Workplace conflict between employees is common, but most people respond well to management intervention. Frequent follow-up is typically the missing piece to successful outcomes. Your insistence on change is important. Meeting with your employees frequently after an EAP referral, even for just several minutes at a time over a protracted period, will help establish and reinforce new patterns of the behavior you seek.

Q. Two of my employees do not get along, so we created a strategy to avoid conflict by creating work flow around them. Projects are set up to avoid them crossing paths with each other. The conflicts stopped, so was this an acceptable solution?

A. At first glance, this arrangement may appear like an effective solution, but it probably has a significant downside that creates other problems. Enabling these two employees likely requires others picking up the slack, doing more work, making schedule changes and communicating in different ways, all to accommodate such an arrangement. If employees are taking on more responsibilities than they should, that is a lot of accommodating. Ensuring that these employees don’t cross paths means you are settling for something less than the ideal work flow that would benefit your company. There is bound to be unspoken resentment about the unwillingness of management to assert authority and insist these employees change their ways. There is a solution. Talk with BJC EAP. You will gain insight on the value of handling this situation differently with better results for the whole work unit and organization.

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