Here’s a Human Resources principle that is true for 100% of businesses or organizations in existence: There will be conflict in the workplace. As much as you try to create a positive work environment and keep the peace between employees, conflict in the workplace is inevitable when there are two or more people working together.

The question shouldn’t be, “How do we avoid conflict in the workplace?” Rather, you need to assume there will be conflict, and then prepare for it by asking, “How do we successfully address conflict in the workplace when it happens?”

Whenever we’re working with company leaders who are trying to address an area of conflict in their businesses, there are typically a few principles we encourage them to consider. First, it’s important to identify how critical the conflict might be to your business. Second, it’s important to consider the basic elements of conflict resolution when addressing it. The final thing we remind leaders is that there might be a scenario in which nothing they do will help resolve the conflict (though there are still ways to keep it under control).

3 Common Types of Workplace Conflict 

Not all conflict is created equal. This is a critical principle for leaders and managers to understand. What might seem like a small issue to you could actually end up costing you your business. At the same time, issues you think are detrimental to your business might not make that much of an impact once everything is said and done.

Here are four examples of different types of employee conflicts that can arise in the workplace:

  1. Informal Communication & Emotional Conflicts. Most of the everyday conflict that occurs between employees is caused by poor communication, misinformation, or a lack of emotional intelligence. For these types of issues, it’s valuable for leaders to have some basic conflict resolution skills to quickly and effectively address the conflict.
  2. Formal Employee Complaints. Employee complaints consist of allegations of unfair treatment, unfavorable working conditions, and disputes between coworkers or employees and managers. These are the most common types of formal conflicts between employees.
  3. Labor Relations. If you have employees who are a part of a labor union, you might find yourself dealing with labor relations disputes. In these scenarios, your HR department should act as the liaison between such employees and the labor union.
  4. Legal Allegations. If an employee should declare discrimination, harassment, or unfair treatment against their employer, such allegations fall under the responsibilities of the HR department. These serious issues do have the potential to ruin your business and should be taken very seriously by leaders and managers.

3 Keys to Dealing with Conflict

Once you’ve identified the level of severity of the conflict, you can better assess how to address it. Here are a few keys to dealing with those basic, everyday workplace conflicts:

  1. Address the issue quickly. Workplace conflicts tend to escalate as time goes on. If you learn about a conflict between employees, you will likely minimize the overall impact if you address it quickly.
  2. Encourage each person to try and understand the other person’s point of view. It is absolutely essential to try and understand the other person’s motivations in order to begin resolving a conflict. We maintain a defensive posture whenever we’re only seeing things from our point of view. Understanding the other person’s “What’s in it for me?” position is critical.
  3. Gain clarity around the disagreement and a common goal. It’s important to make sure both parties are on the same page about what the specific disagreement is. Without gaining clarity about the specific conflict, it’s impossible to address it. Once the specific conflict is identified, it’s important to find a common goal that both sides can work on together. That commonality can be as simple as “both sides want to end the conflict.”

When to Seek Outside Help for Conflict Resolution

What do you do about those larger, more serious workplace conflicts that can’t be resolved in a single meeting? When should you get a third-party involved in conflict resolution? Here are a few times we encourage leaders to consider seeking outside help with conflict resolution:

  • If there are potential legal issues involved, such as allegations of discrimination or harassment.
  • If your HR department doesn’t have the time or training to provide the conflict resolution.
  • If there are patterns of recurring issues with an employee or employees.
  • If the incidents are becoming abusive or resemble bullying.
  • If a manager needs retraining that can’t be done in-house.

If you’ve identified a workplace conflict that needs to be addressed, don’t wait. And, if it’s a serious matter that could benefit from having help from a third-party, our team at LBMC EP can help. Connect with one of our professional human resource partners to learn how we can help you address conflict in the workplace, whether it’s a simple disagreement or a serious legal allegation.