How to manage employee conflict in a small business

Conflict is a part of any relationship, especially a working relationship. The real trouble is when managers of hourly employees get brought into the drama and therefore spend less time running the business and serving customers.  It is critical to understand a few basics of conflict management to avoid time consuming distractions in the workplace.  

Have the employees solve the problem without you.  

Don’t get pulled into employee drama.  Instead of reacting immediately, redirect the problem back to the the employee and ask the employee to take the first step to remedy the problem.  If the problem continues after this first step, then management may step in and take further steps.  

Most workplace conflicts resolve themselves by asking the employee to take the first step.  Why?  Often, employee “complaints” are little more than an employee’s desire to vent to their manager.  Unfortunately, when a manager engages in minor conflicts, it can add gasoline to a fire that might have flamed out on its own. By an employee addressing the issue head on, it frequently clears up any misunderstandings.

If you have to get involved, determine the facts.

Should the conflict escalate to a level where management intervention is necessary, it is frequently difficult to determine ultimate responsibility.  Unless there are witnesses, emails, or other evidence, usually the manager is trying to make sense of one employee’s word against another.  Sit both employees down together so that they must answer questions in front of each other, which encourages a more honest exchange with less exaggeration.  If there are still two different stories that cannot be reconciled, ask if there are any witnesses, emails, texts or other factual evidence that can help to determine a conclusion.  If there is no other evidence, however, the manager may have to conclude that there is not enough information to determine a conclusion, and all employees must move forward professionally.

Empathy may be all that is needed.  

Depending on the number of your staff, it can be difficult to respond with empathy to frequent employee issues.  Keep in mind that often, all the employee is seeking is validation of their feelings.  Empathy from their manager may be all that is needed for the employee to move forward.  Demonstrate empathy by listening for a period of time that you are comfortable with.  When that boundary is extended, let the employee know that you value their employment and understand their feelings.  Then redirect the employee by saying that you believe in them and their professional ability to handle a level of interpersonal conflict and suggest that if the problem persist, they take the first step in handling the issue professionally.  

Managers confronted by employee conflict need to remember to resist the temptation to get dragged into the drama.  Instead, they should have the employees solve their own problems.  Only if they must, managers should get involved from a place of fact-finding to uncover the truth and resolve the conflict.  And throughout it all, they should remember to approach all employees with empathy.  In these situations, kindness goes a long way.


The Homebase Guide to Creating a Great Team Culture

In the Homebase Guide to Creating a Great Team Culture, we cover:​

1. Introduction & Team Culture Quiz
2. Culture Fundamentals: Respect and Appreciate your Employees
3. Having a Great Culture: Improve Teamwork
4. The Cultural Holy Grail: Empowered Employees
5. Want to Reduce Turnover Among Your Employees? Try Advanced Scheduling

6. My Employees Are Fighting: How to Manage Conflict in a Small Business

7. Career Development for Hourly Employees When There is No Room for Growth

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