Tips for handling employee confrontation in the workplace

Peyton Duplechien • 06 Apr 2022 • 5 min read

No matter your workplace role, it’s safe to say that, at the start of any new workday, the last thing on your mind is whether or not you’re going to need to handle a confrontation in the workplace – after all, that’s likely not in your job remit and you’re probably more concerned with satisfying the needs of your customer base.

Unfortunately, even though we’d like to avoid it, workplace confrontations are an inescapable part of working life. Some employees simply won’t get on while others might just be having a bad day and accidentally let it overwhelm them.

Either way, when a confrontation in the workplace does occur, you need to be sure that you can handle it firmly, fairly, and calmly in order to keep hurt feelings to a minimum and minimize the potential for such arguments to impact the wider workflow of your team or company.

However, if you’ve never had to take the lead in handling employee confrontations personally, where do you start? Keep reading for our top tips on how to de-escalate office confrontations when they happen.

Handling confrontation in the workplace: The basics

To begin with, let’s start by laying some familiar and basic groundwork that will be immensely helpful for carrying out conflict resolution. Because in many ways, handling confrontation in the workplace can be a very similar experience to handling a dissatisfied customer.

For example, a well-trained and experienced customer-service rep will know that when dealing with a dissatisfied customer, there are 3 steps you must follow to identify customer pain points:

  1. Acknowledge the situation in front of you.
  2. Identify the problem causing the confrontation.
  3. Take ownership of the problem and find a way to resolve it in a satisfactory manner.

Of course, there are naturally a few differences to bear in mind when applying this framework to handling confrontation in the workplace. For one thing, unless one side in an argument is clearly at fault, you’ll need to work towards a resolution that satisfies both parties.

Steps to take when resolving employee arguments

Okay, now that you have a basic framework in place to help guide you, it’s time to look at how to deal with workplace drama and confrontation in detail. Below are our top tips on how to navigate this tricky task:

1. Ask the right questions

First things first, you need to get to the crux of the disagreement as soon as possible, and that means asking the right questions. So, once you’ve verbally recognized that your employees are upset, try asking some of the following:

  • What is the source of your dissatisfaction? Is it a policy? A customer? A coworker?
  • Is there anything outside of work that may be adding to your stress or worry?

Once you have an idea of what could be causing the conflict at hand, transition your questioning into a solution-focused path with the following:

  • What do you feel is the best solution to this issue?
  • How can I as a leader help you get to this solution?

By using these questions, you’ll find it that much easier to come to a satisfactory resolution for all parties involved. And remember, make sure to be patient, empathetic, and actively listen to each person involved so that you gain a firm understanding of the issue at hand.

2. Recognize both sides

While some employee confrontations may be the result of customer interactions or workplace policy, in many cases, the source of an employee’s dissatisfaction could be a fellow coworker. If this is the case then it’s essential that you get a full picture of the problem by taking onboard both sides of the argument.

First, before anything else, make sure that this is NOT a case of workplace discrimination or harassment. If you believe that an employee is being harassed or discriminated against, it is your duty as a manager to investigate the situation fully and transfer the matter over to HR and more senior staff if relevant.

If, however, you’ve ruled out discrimination or harassment, take the time to meet with both employees separately so that you can get a clear picture of the problem at hand. Then, meet with them together and lead them calmly through a discussion to see how they can come to common ground, based on their disagreement.

3. Make time for HR

It should really go without saying that having time to meet with dissatisfied employees one-on-one is vital to creating a healthy workplace environment. As a busy business owner, however, this can be hard to do.

Therefore, instead of letting conflict resolution fall to the wayside, you should ensure you have a trained and experienced HR team in place to help handle confrontational situations.

Essentially, the role of an HR team is to manage the internal functions of your team by defending the interests of your employees and being there to help handle disagreements when they occur. They’re especially vital in larger businesses where you or managers may not be able to dedicate the full attention needed when employee conflict arises.

So, if you feel your business might fall under this area, start looking into hiring one or two members of HR staff. That way, you can begin splitting conflict resolution responsibilities more evenly while also making sure your employees still feel heard.

4. Implement formal procedures

Whether we like it or not, some workplace disputes simply can’t be resolved by having both parties sit down and talk it out, especially where discrimination or harassment is concerned.

In cases such as these, it is absolutely essential that you have formal procedures in place to deal with such problems, and more importantly, that you actually implement them correctly when required.

However, you should also not be slap-dash with how you apply these procedures, and such steps should only taken after informal problem-solving has been attempted, or an employee has legitimate grievances that require you to take this road. They should very much be treated as a last-resort step in the conflict-resolution process.

How to avoid workplace confrontation in the future

As with most things in life, prevention is almost always better than the cure, and knowing what the signs of any brewing workplace conflict are can go a long way towards heading it off before it becomes a bigger issue.

So, in order to minimize the chance of future workplace confrontation down the line, we recommend doing the following:

  • Get to know your team – all small business owners and managers should take the time to get to know their team. Doing so will not only help you facilitate their preferred working style, but it will also make it that much easier to spot where conflict might arise in the future.
  • Look for early signs – in many cases, potential conflict can be spotted well before it actually breaks out into the open. Therefore, you should keep an eye out for things such as disrespectful behavior, petty acts that disrupt work, and attitude changes between employees, all of which can be early signs of a wider issue.
  • Intervene promptly – once you do spot the potential for conflict, or from the moment you’re made aware of it, it is very important to intervene promptly in order to resolve the matter before it becomes a larger problem.
  • Make clear your expectations – as a manager or business owner, one thing you can do to help reduce the odds of conflict occurring in the workplace is to make clear how you expect your employees to treat each other and approach their work. Encouraging an atmosphere of mutual respect, understanding, and teamwork can help cement team relationships and make conflict resolution easier.

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Hopefully, you should now have a much better understanding of how to deal with conflict in the workplace. Of course, one thing that can’t be avoided is the stress that comes with operating a customer service team, especially if that’s not the primary role of your team – which is why you might want to consider working with VoiceNation.

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