Masterclass: How to manage disputes between staff

22 Feb 2018 By PM Editorial

Conflict can create a toxic environment if not addressed effectively

Employers have a legal obligation to provide workplaces free of harassment and discrimination. When disputes occur, they often concern employees who feel they have been bullied, treated unfairly or harassed.

Although it can take a lot of time to deal with conflicts, they could create a toxic environment if not addressed effectively. Happy workplaces tend to be more productive, so tackling employee disputes head-on is vital, and managers must be involved from the beginning.

Without appropriate management, conflicts can lead to increased sickness absence among those involved, or even spill into their personal lives. Unless someone intervenes, the situation tends to worsen. 

Supportive working environments are critical to how confident employees feel in reporting any issues or disputes they’re having, so workplace culture goes a long way to prevent and manage any problems. This means staff need to have a colleague they can speak to about any problems – ideally this should be their line manager. Unfortunately, some employees do not trust their line manager, and opt to go further up the chain to raise issues. 

There are three types of manager: those who manage effectively; those with little idea what’s going on among their employees; and those who know what’s going on but choose not to address it. All leaders have a responsibility to be the first type – to ensure that those they manage are working productively in a safe and secure setting. Good managers also tailor their approach to the employees they are working with, and can spot if they’re unhappy. 

It is beneficial for both organisations and their staff if managers have regular meetings with their employees, to give them the opportunity to be honest about any issues they’re having. This creates trust, which means staff are more likely to confide in their line manager if they’re involved in a dispute, and ensures they are clear on what is expected of them in terms of their conduct. 

Basic mediation skills training for managers is also useful, as it teaches them to listen to employees and process information, and gives them the confidence to have difficult conversations. Those who find it hard to have sensitive conversations will find any conflicts in their teams get progressively worse over time.

In addition, organisations must have current and effective policies to deal with disputes, and it is essential that these hold managers to account in the process of dispute resolution.

When employees argue, it can become messy and difficult for them and for other staff not directly involved. Unless dealt with early on, all disputes will eventually blow up and, the longer they go on, the bigger the eventual bang will be.

David Richards is an independent consultant investigator at CMP Resolutions


Mediation for Managers by John Crawley and Katherine Graham:


Acas’s guide to spotting the signs of developing conflict in workplaces:


The Managing Conflict Workshop by The HR Dept, Edinburgh and the Lothians at Conference House, Edinburgh on 27 April:

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