by: Rob Parker

If not dealt with promptly and effectively, conflict between two employees can escalate causing disruption, low morale, and possible litigation. Once poor decisions are made regarding conflict, it is very difficult to “unwind” them to avoid a serious problem.

When a job takes employees away from home for a period of time, it is not uncommon for coworkers to room together. In this scenario, after their shift two male coworkers began discussing politics in their shared room.  The discussion grew heated to the point where one employee threatened the other with a violent act.  The other employee immediately contacted his supervisor requesting a separate room while explaining the circumstances.  The supervisor complied with the employee’s request.  The supervisor then contacted his manager who instructed the supervisor to tell the two coworkers to “grow up” and take no further action.

After further discussion regarding the incident, management decided to move the employee who had complained to a different job and change his shift. Once this decision was communicated to the complaining employee, the employee sent text messages to management indicating his displeasure with the decision and hinting that he may have to consult an attorney if these changes occur.  Up to this point HR had not been consulted or informed of the situation.

After reading the text messages, management decided that the complaining employee should be terminated for poor performance, which had never been documented. The employee who had made the threats would not be disciplined.

HR Intervention

HR tried to intervene recommending that the employee making the threats be disciplined (if confirmed) and his coworker not be moved to another job or have his shift changed. Feeling that it would leave management with egg on its face, management decided to terminate.

This situation could probably have been avoided if the following had occurred:

  1. Separate the two employees immediately (which did occur).
  2. Inform HR immediately (which did not occur).
  3. Investigate the nature of the complaint as soon as possible, getting both sides of the story.
  4. Take appropriate action regarding the complaint depending on the outcome of the investigation.
  5. Do not take adverse action against the employee who made the complaint.

Retaliation continues to be the number one EEOC charge, and it sometimes very hard to defend. Train managers on how to properly handle the aftermath of conflict between employees, the filing of complaints, and the consequences of investigation.  Remember, employers are expected to take complaints seriously, investigate, and take prompt remedial action.

Need help training your supervisors to manage conflict in the workplace? Register your supervisors and managers for our 4-hour workshop on Managing Conflict in the Workplace. This workshop delves into the types of conflict we encounter in the workplace and provides practical guides for assessing and dealing with real life conflict situations. Applying existing tools and established processes, workshop participants will learn how to address conflict when it occurs and prevent conflict in the future, including how to be a respectful, neutral, and supportive moderator of workplace conflicts.