Small Business Tips

How to Mediate and Resolve Conflict Between Employees

Victoria Morrison
Managing workplace tensions

As a business owner, you face trials every day. It's no surprise that some challenges involve the people who work for you. Your employees are your business, your brand, and your success or failure. You can't afford to have conflict in your workplace, literally! Disputes can have severe consequences on your business objectives.  The people who work for your business are your most important asset. To keep your business humming smoothly, your employees need to get along and work as a team. As your business hires more employees, there is more potential for conflict between co-workers. It's a fact of business life.  Bill Howatt is a workforce productivity expert at Morneau Shepell‚ one of Canada's largest HR consulting firms. In a 2015 Globe and Mail article, he wrote that "Leaders who lack conflict management skills and avoid conflict often end up being less effective at achieving their defined business objectives." If you don't take steps to deal with conflicts between employees, your entire business can suffer. This includes employees, customers, suppliers, and of course, your sales figures.  The Department of Justice describes mediation as a commonly used method of resolving disputes. But what is the definition of mediation in the workplace? According to conflict management consultant Tim Hicks, "mediation provides a structured setting in which the parties meet with a neutral third party to accomplish what they have been unable to achieve on their own: hear and understand each other; become clearer on what their interests and goals are; problem solve and build agreements."  Mediation is a confidential, informal and voluntary process where someone helps resolve a conflict between employees and mend their working relationship.

businessman or person separating two boxing glove opposing competitors

What are some workplace conflict resolution strategies?

Conflicts occur naturally in the workplace. Different people have different beliefs and viewpoints, and therefore, some people don't get along or agree with each other. As a business grows, conflicts can cause several problems, such as:

  • Absenteeism (the Conference Board estimated that absences alone cost the economy $16 billion in 2012)
  • Lost productivity
  • Lost business opportunities and customers
  • Reduced synergy and teamwork
  • Lawsuits from current or former employees.

Besides economic losses, unresolved conflicts cause chronic emotional aggravation and low morale for some employees. Others may experience mental health issues or depression. One of your roles is to provide leadership to your employees. That also means learning how to deal with conflicts and resolve them. If you don't know how, then you can attend a workshop or hire a mediation consultant.

Ways to resolve conflict in the workplace

Workplace conflict resolution involves several steps and a straightforward process. The following mediation steps are general guidelines for settling conflicts at work.

  • Stay calm and approach the problem head-on. As the business owner, you are the person in charge. Unless someone else is better qualified, you will need to mediate or defuse the situation. This is an opportunity to show your leadership skills.
  • When you mediate a conflict, meet both people or groups together to get at the heart of the issue quickly. Each person will get their turn to explain their experience to everyone present. By discussing openly, there won't be any secret information floating around.
  • Be aware that employees not involved in a conflict can also be affected indirectly. Company morale can suffer. Make sure you're open to discussing any of your employees' preoccupations at any time (open door policy).
  • Ask each participant in the mediation process which steps they would like the other participant to take to fix the situation.
  • Focus on items that both sides agree on and have a common understanding of.
  • The two sides must commit to making the necessary changes to resolve the conflict.
Businessman with an exclamation point on a clipboard looking at his colleagues at a business meeting

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Why is conflict resolution so important in the workplace?

What can you do if conflict erupts? As a leader, do you tackle problems head-on, or duck to avoid them? Do you have the leadership skills to help your employees resolve conflicts? You should address disputes between employees with mediation strategies early on. Like most problems in business, the longer you wait, the higher the cost to fix.  Yet, workplace conflict resolution is easier to achieve than you might think. Mediation aims to solve conflict by providing a forum for employees to express their concerns. Whenever a mediator is involved in resolving a dispute, outcomes are great. Mediation experts report on that survey results show a success rate of up to 90% or 100%.  A mediator acts as an impartial facilitator who can de-escalate tensions and provide the necessary distance between the parties to help them resolve a conflict. Mediation is particularly successful at resolving interpersonal struggles since it favours open dialogue and different perspectives.

Methods for avoiding and resolving disputes

You can use various conflict resolution strategies depending on the situation. Lee Jay Berman, a professional mediator and founder of the American Institute of Mediation, presents a toolbox of 13 strategies for avoiding and resolving disputes. Here are some highlights:

  • Identify behaviour or issues that are causing conflict. For example, let's say that two sales reps who work on commission disagree about why specific customers aren't in their territory.
  • Ask the right questions and listen to everyone's explanations without being judgmental. Questions should be open-ended to avoid pointing the finger.
  • Bring up specific situations where hostile behaviour is present. For example, one of the employees told a customer about his colleague's poor ethics to make himself look better. The other employee retaliated by visiting a prospect outside his territory.
  • Point to the consequences of the behaviour and how it jeopardizes the company's image and affects its employees.
  • Call for action. Suggest solutions that are acceptable to all and make changes to the sales process if needed.
  • For example, if your sales reps work as a team on opportunities, they might come up with better sales strategies and support each other when needed.

If you learn to manage conflict in the workplace, it can become a positive force. View situations from different viewpoints and encourage positive group thinking, brainstorming and solutions.

Hand writing Mediation with marker on transparent wipe board

What's involved in the employee mediation process?

The mediation process has long been used in the legal world as a component of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). Its primary purpose is to settle disputes, so they do not result in lengthy and costly trials and litigation.  Mediation is essentially a set of steps. Its goal is to bring people together to express their issue with the help of someone not directly involved in the dispute. When a third party (the mediator) is in the room, this alone will help to de-escalate the problem and foster respect for each other's viewpoint.  An employee mediation process follows a set of mediation steps that generally includes:

  • The people involved and the mediator sit down to discuss the conflict
  • The mediator describes the purpose and goals of the mediation
  • Each person describes their view of the conflict
  • The mediator listens openly to gather information
  • The mediator looks for common ground and seeks to identify what can be settled and agreed to
  • Identifying possible solutions
  • Reaching and committing to an agreement and celebrating it as a victory for all.

Resolution benefits everyone

Resolving conflicts between employees can be rewarding for business owners too. When your employees feel relieved and more respectful of each other, it helps your business move forward.  In some cases, mediating, and especially interpersonal conflicts can be difficult. As a leader, you must be diplomatic, even if it's unnatural, and hone your mediator instincts. Think about controlling your reactions, even if you're the boss.  For example, let's say you already understand a conflict between the two sales reps is interpersonal and not operational. You've already fixed the operational process. Now, you need to help the people you value to get back on track, work together and respect each other. Don't lose sight of the problem and start blaming employees or jumping to conclusions.  If you don't feel suited to being a mediator of workplace conflicts, consider appointing someone else. Could your HR person handle employee mediation? No matter who is in charge, anyone involved in employee conflict resolution can benefit from mediation training.  HR consulting firms or community organizations, such as United Way, offer workshops. Alternatively, a mediation coach can deliver training to a group of people at your office. It's a small investment in time and money, and it helps potential mediators learn proper mediation and employee relations skills.  Like many business costs, mediation training is a tax-deductible expense. The knowledge your team members acquire could also help propel your business to the next level.