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How to Get to the Root of Employee Conflict

You’ve heard rumors of a rift in the office, and now one of the parties in question has set up a time to come sit down and hash it out. You agree to the appointment but then aren’t sure what to do next. How do you handle these conversations? Should the other person be present? What should you say? What can you legally say?

Below, offer some tips for small business owners – many of whom are sans in-office HR help – to help guide them and ensure the conversation goes smoothly and some degree of a resolution is reached. Keep in mind that a Professional Employer Organization (PEO), is a resource to turn to for help with off-site HR professionals.

Decide on your process and write it down:
Yep, we realize that this one might be almost impossible in the moment, but you really need to make sure that your policy for reporting a grievance or complaint – either with a coworker, manager, or business process – is clearly outlined in your employee handbook. Writing this in your employee handbook not only helps to manage the expectations for those who have to go through the process, but also creates a framework for you to follow, including what the various steps look like, how long each step should take, and when they might expect a resolution.

Assemble the parties:
Once you receive notification that there is an issue with another worker, it’s only fair that you bring all implicated parties in to say their piece. Now, you can choose to first listen to the employee that raised the issue and then decide whether you can deescalate it on your own and forgo this process, but that decision can also ruffle some feathers if folks hear that they haven’t been given a fair shake at telling their side of the story. Ideally, your written policy should state what the process entails so that you don’t have to do any guesswork.

Acknowledge the issue:
Smart folks often say that there’s a reason that we have two ears and one mouth and that’s because we should listen twice as much as we speak. Never has this been truer than in situations like this when someone is approaching their boss about an issue. It’s a nerve-wracking time for them and they need to feel like they are not only being listened to, but that the person doing the listening is sympathetic to their issue and also as eager to reach a resolution.

Get the facts:
While we certainly want you to have a natural and empathetic conversation, your job during this conversation is to get the facts from this individual. Ask about when this began, ask how it started, ask what has happened since then, and ask how they have responded. Where possible, ask that they provide any documentation – such as emails, text logs, or other written documentation – to support the case.

Establish a timeline:
As we noted in the first point, having a plan for managing grievances also includes working under a framework that includes timelines. In establishing timelines up front with the involved parties, you can be sure that you aren’t leaving anyone hanging or making them feel like their issue isn’t being addressed. During that initial conversation, tell them what the next steps are, tell them the timeline for doing these next steps, and let them know how – and how often – you will communicate any and all updates.

Figure out a fix:
Now that you have spoken to each of the involved parties, it’s time to figure out a solution. Again, your employee handbook should serve as a guide, but if not, there are external avenues that you should explore, including state and federal laws, industry guidelines, and other reference resources. Of course, if you’re a PEO client, you can always give the experts a call and to forge forward with a plan.

Communicate the decision:
Now that you’ve worked your way through the process and reached a resolution, you need to close the communication loop and convey the decision to the involved parties. For this conversation, you need to be clear about your decision, the facts that led you to this decision, and what the outcome is. Be prepared that the employee – especially the one who may feel that the outcome didn’t fall in their favor – may have questions, but just firmly state the facts of the case and how you reached the decision. You can also tell them that they do have the right to appeal in writing and then direct them to the part of the employee handbook that outlines the details for this option.

Make it final:
Once you’ve closed out the issue, the hard work really begins. Now is the time to go back through your employee handbook and make sure that your policy and procedure regarding dealing with employee complaints and grievances is airtight – from a legal and ethical perspective – and that you are also comfortable with how the process flows. If there is a problem, now is the time to make the change.

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