Contrary to the popular phrase “Ignorance is bliss,” it’s not – especially if you’re the manager of two workers who genuinely don’t get along. When two employees hate each other, their animosity can turn a healthy working environment into a toxic space. Coworker conflict will always come up; you can’t be everyone’s best friend. However, you need to be civil and able to work together. The longer the dislike between employees endures, the more it’s likely to hurt their productivity and that of those around them. Eventually, it needs to change and be remedied.
If the conflict is among hourly workers, you’d probably be inclined to ignore the spat, or perhaps discipline the employees if it has affected their performance. You may even just let one or both go to avoid the drama. However, when the feud is between professional staff, the situation becomes more complicated. And, when the conflict is between peers who are vying for an upcoming vacancy due to executive succession planning, emotions and ambitions can get the best of anyone.
Hopefully you proactively screen out candidates with behavioral issues using pre-hire assessments. But, dislike among workers can stem from any number of work- or non-work-related issues. Perhaps they’re from different social circles or have differing backgrounds; it could be the way they do (or don’t do) their work; or something trivial such as the sound of their voice or malodorous lunch they eat in the other’s vicinity. Whatever the reason, it is in everyone’s best interest to address and resolve the matter before it becomes toxic in the office.
Outcomes of Coworker Conflict
Once you're made aware of your employees not getting along, there are six possible outcomes of resolving conflict among coworkers:
- Both parties work out their differences, rise above, and move on.
- Both parties agree to disagree, but get past it and move on.
- Both parties say they’ve moved on, but one or both secretly harbors continued ill will. Negativity lurks and performance soon begins to dip.
- One party sucks it up and acquiesces while the other seemingly “wins.” Conflict could continue.
- The “wrong” party won’t budge and needs to be removed from the department and possibly let go.
- The situation damages both workers and both leave.
You’ve probably encountered people in your personal or professional lives who always seem to be mired in drama and have a knack for dragging others into their issues. If you think, “Here we go again” regarding one of the employees involved in the conflict, then that’s probably a sign that the person needs to change their attitude or be terminated.
I once worked for a manager who reveled in intra-departmental friction among his team members. His logic was that it made us more competitive against each other in an effort to win his praise, thus pushing us to perform at even higher levels than if we were all best friends. I can’t help comparing this experience to a modern-day arena of gladiators, fighting to the death for the whim of their leaders. Unless you’re a professional athlete, work is not a sport and employees should not be treated as pawns in your game.
Some would argue that creative tension among peers and coworkers can yield superior results due to the competition and rivalry that is formed. While this might be true on a project basis, it can easily establish a permanent us-versus-them culture that devolves into conflict.
Here’s another thought: if you allow coworker conflict to linger without addressing it, one of the workers (or both, or an uninvolved third worker) could go around you to your boss or to HR, making an uncomfortable situation much worse. The implications will be clear: “This was brought to the manager’s attention, and he either chose to ignore it or didn’t know how to deal with it. He’s incompetent.” This could backfire on them, but the damage to your reputation and unwanted scrutiny on your group will be done.
Six Tips for Resolving and Avoiding Coworker Conflict
What can you do to resolve coworker conflict? Each situation will be different, but here are some ways to deal with and avoid future feuding employees:
- Meet with the feuding coworkers to see if you can remedy the situation. Do this quickly to avoid letting it fester and spiral out of control.
- Alert your boss to the situation so that they’re not blindsided by any necessary disciplinary actions now or in the future.
- Involve HR as necessary, which could be as an independent mediator, to put difficult employees on notice or probation, or to begin the process of transferring the troublemakers to another department or location.
- Advocate an environment of respect, tolerance, and civility in the office.
- Maintain an open dialogue with your employees. Freely sharing information and updates on the company and department will quell the need for gossip and rumors.
- Review your policies on use of company email and social media sites. Some disgruntled employees will take their rants online either within or outside of the company. Know your company’s electronic media policies and communicate them with all employees.
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in February 2013 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.