If You Can’t Prevent It, Fix It: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Conflict Resolution

By Megan Headley

Although there are many parts that need to run smoothly to keep the well-oiled machine that is your company working at peak efficiency, one of the most difficult parts to manage is the personality of employees. Simply put: you can’t. However, HR can manage the conflicts that may emerge when different personalities work together and, on occasion, clash.

“I would say a majority of conflicts, certainly in the 25 years I’ve been in working with workplace conflicts, are inter-personal conflicts,” says Marc Steiner, training and practicum coordinator for the Pierce County Center for Dispute Resolution (PCCDR) in Tacoma, Wash. PCCDR handles mediation to help resolve differences in the workplace, and in his role as a mediator Steiner has come to learn that there is no such thing as a clear cut case of conflict.

“On some level, many of the cases are not standard,” Steiner says.


Although conflict may seem imminent, it doesn’t have to be. These professionals advise several steps for preventing the conflicts that may threaten to emerge when unlike personalities work together.

Bill Rusak, founder and president of HR & ADR Services LLC, an employee and labor relations, human resources and conflict management consultancy, advises informing and then regularly reminding employees about the different value and approaches to situations that may be taken by different genders, demographics, generations (as there are now four different generations in the workplace), personality types and constructive and destructive behaviors inherent in conflict styles. “The latter deals with a trade-off or achieving balance between personal goal achievement and maintaining relationships,” Rusak says.

Andrea Little, human resource consultant for Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, says that it can help in the long run to take time on a regular basis to ensure that the workplace is running harmoniously.

“I always encourage supervisors to view performance management as an ongoing conversation that occurs throughout the entire review period,” Little says.

She explains, “Many supervisors feel pressed for time due to their own workload outside of supervising and, unfortunately, many only address or discuss their employees’ performance at the time of their annual review, or maybe not at all. This leads to morale issues and frustration among employees. It also enables poor performers to continue to perform poorly, average employees to continue to toe the line and above-average performers to become frustrated that their hard work and efforts are not recognized. Although this ongoing conversation takes time, effort and commitment on the part of the supervisor, it helps promote a culture of continuous improvement, consistent work practices and sets a foundation for building greater trust between supervisors and their employees.”

First Steps

If and when conflict does break out, it’s important to first take the temperature of the situation before diving in between two sides. “Perspective-taking and getting all the facts,” is the first step for Rusak. Next comes a “conflict check,” before reaching out to create solutions, he says.

To perform that “perspective taking,” it helps to talk to the individuals involved separately.

“The best case scenario would be to talk to the manager and the employee to attempt to get to the root of the communication breakdown,” Little says. She points out, “Unfortunately, due to confidentiality and other considerations, this is not always possible.”

“There are some challenges to confidentiality for HR because they’re also investigative in some level, which is often why mediators such as us are one of the tools they may use,” Steiner agrees.

Steiner adds that conflict resolution training can give HR managers the crucial interpersonal skills they need to tackle these interviews themselves and prevent conflicts from escalating to the need for action-taking. “I think much of the interpersonal skills that HR managers would learn in conflict resolution training could on some level help dissipate the problem, especially if they’re inter-personal conflicts, which by and large they typically are,” he says.

Little adds that the key to working through these conflicts is to “really listen” to what the complainant is saying. “Listen to how they communicate and describe the conflict to try to not only see their side, but to also put yourself in the shoes of the person on the other side of the conflict,” she says.

Rusak also advises “active listening,” then breaking down into small pieces and analyzing the issues at the heart of the dispute in order to uncover the facts and any mutual goals. Even as you break down the pieces, he adds, it’s important to stay on track by keeping the big picture in the mind.

On tops of listening, Little suggests going deeper into the relationship by taking a second look at job dynamics. “I always try to review any organizational charts and position descriptions [to] get a good understanding of the business of the department or unit where the individuals work, to try to identify any other dynamics that could be impacting the relationship,” she says.

Finally, Rusak suggests that it’s important to provide room for either side to concede their position. “Provide for a face-saving harbor … and be attentive, positive and respectful,” he says.

A Third Party

Of course, HR managers are people too, and it’s nearly impossible for these managers not to develop relationships within the company. Whether the manager is overseeing a conflict among friends or is in the heat of the battle themselves, it’s important to remain unbiased. “Objectivity is the key,” Rusak says.

“As an HR professional, it is of utmost importance to maintain professionalism and objectivity when handling personnel matters,” Little agrees. As she points out, “Emotion can create and further drive conflict. It is important to be introspective and recognize our own personal biases and emotions in order to make a conscious decision to not let them impact our work. If an HR professional finds it difficult or is unable to stay objective or maintain neutrality due to a personal relationship or bias, it is prudent to remove themselves from that situation and ask for assistance from a coworker.”

In addition to objectivity, it’s important to set clear boundaries between personal and professional relationships, if possible.

“In these situations, the HR person has to be very clear about their own role in the mediation,” Steiner says. For example, he explains, “If the HR person is dealing with an issue with an employee that is being entered into that employee’s records, that’s going to compromise the two of them mediating unless it’s very clear what the boundaries are.”

Rusak says mediation is all about providing a safe space to talk.

“I expose employees in a conflict to the knowledge of the different conflict behaviors, set up a safe meeting environment, get out way and let the employees talk to each other using active listening cues like looking for facts, opinions, feelings and values and then urge them to employ constructive behaviors such as reaching out, expressing emotion, perspective taking and creating solutions. My role in this is facilitative and usually marginal,” Rusak says.

About the Author

Megan Headley is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, Va. She can be reached at rmheadley3@gmail.com.