Conflict is inevitable—it’s human nature. And in many cases, it can even be a good thing. You want people to have different ideas, opinions, and outlooks that may challenge the status quo and help make your organization more innovative. 

But conflict can sometimes escalate, be personal in nature, or be otherwise inappropriate for the workplace. For instance, cultural differences could cause a misunderstanding. Friendliness could be misconstrued as flirting. A personal attack could be intentional against a perceived office rival. Or somebody could just be having a bad day, and say the wrong thing.

Most conflicts can be resolved on their own, or with the help of a manager. Some may be prevented altogether with a proactive approach to conflict management. But others may require HR involvement before a conflict leads to poor morale, reduced productivity, or litigation. 

Build a great company culture

Your company culture has the potential to either incite or deter conflict. For example, a highly competitive environment could turn team members against each other, while a culture of recognition could create a more positive work environment.

HR teams are in a good position to help shape company culture. Consider your company values carefully, and hire people who share them, encourage the behaviors you want to see, and address the behaviors that break with your values. Document your expectations in an employee handbook, and discuss them during employee onboarding. 

When everyone is on the same page and feels nurtured by a positive work environment, conflict is less likely to escalate beyond minor disagreements.

Encourage team building

HR teams may also get ahead of conflict escalation by encouraging team building activities. When employees can get to know one another outside of work, they can build stronger relationships that minimize misunderstandings and encourage healthy conversations. 

Things like leadership retreats or company-wide holiday parties can bring people together. Even remote teams should encourage occasional in-person meetups as they’re able. These can even be done virtually for now, through activities like video happy hours or online game nights.

Mediate conflicts

In the event team members and their managers are not able to resolve a conflict on their own, HR can step in as a neutral mediator. It’s important to listen to each person’s side of the story with an open mind, and guide the team members toward a mutually agreeable resolution.

In some cases, however, it may be necessary to bring in an outside specialist, move one of the team members to another group within the company, or take corrective or disciplinary action. Use your discretion after getting a handle on the situation.

Maintain compliance 

There are some very serious situations in which HR involvement should be a given. For instance, sexual harassment, racism, or physical violence. Getting involved as soon you hear about the problem can help ensure the proper steps are taken and that your team members feel safe. 

You may hear about these issues firsthand from those involved, or through anonymous feedback. You may even uncover issues while digging into your HR data, including compensation analyses or employee surveys. 

It’s an employer’s responsibility to maintain a safe, equal opportunity workspace for team members, so it’s important to take these situations seriously.

Suggest development 

Soft skills—from empathy, emotional intelligence, and communication—are just as important as job-specific hard skills. And, just like hard skills, they can be learned and developed over time. 

HR may suggest the right development resources to team members in order to prevent future conflict, particularly among repeat offenders. For instance, you may provide leadership training to new managers, or unconscious bias training to anyone involved in hiring decisions. Similarly, you might suggest anger management coaching to an employee who has frequent outbursts. Or you might provide emotional intelligence training to someone who is often at odds with other team members.

Discipline team members

Finally, there may be times HR needs to be involved to discipline team members. It’s certainly not a fun part of the job, but it can be necessary. This may include formal write-ups, involuntary leave, or possible termination. 

In these instances, sit down with the team member in question, and have a conversation about their behavior. Document the situation, and explain what happens next. A repeat offender can create a toxic workplace culture, so there may be instances where the best course of action is to terminate employment.

Final thoughts on HR’s role in conflict management

HR’s role in conflict management can vary, depending on the situation, as can the resolution. There may be times you’re able to help two team members chat it out over a coffee, while there may be times you need to get your legal team involved and consider termination. But most cases will resolve on their own, particularly if your team can help enable strong relationships, clear communication, and firm expectations. 

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