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27th January 2020

HR Issues – Recognising and Preventing Conflict at Work

The issue of bullying and harassment in the workplace has entered increasingly into the public eye in recent years, perhaps catalysed by various harassment scandals and the #MeToo movement. However, despite the topic becoming increasingly high-profile, CIPD research has suggested that bullying and harassment are not receiving the deserved attention in many of our workplaces.

The Managing Conflict in the Modern Workplace report, published this week, highlighted numerous comparative figures regarding perception of sexual harassment over the last two years. For example, around a third of employees reported enhanced confidence to challenge sexual harassment or raise a complaint about it. Furthermore, almost a quarter thought their manager had become more likely to role model appropriate and respectful behaviour in the workplace than they had been two year previously.

Having said this, a quarter of employees surveyed also believed that harassment and bullying issues were ‘swept under the carpet’ by their organisation, with a third of employers claiming this was down to a lack of confidence to challenge such issues. In fact, CIPD estimates that only 40% of line managers have received people management training.

The influence of line managers on employees’ experience of bullying and harassment in the workplace is critical, having a significant effect on whether this experience is positive and negative. On the one hand, 40% of employees who reported experiencing bullying or harassment over the past three years claimed their line manager was culpable. On the other hand, effective line management of workplace teams contributes greatly towards the capacity for a workplace team to successfully prevent or resolve conflict. Therefore, the possibility of having claims brought directly against them should not discourage line managers from addressing issues head on.

But even before preventing and reducing conflict, line managers must first be able to recognise potential sources of this. Sources of conflict might be highly visible, such as the following examples:

  • obvious bullying, harassment or discriminatory behaviour
  • unacceptable language and demeanour
  • drug or alcohol issues
  • conduct issues (e.g. theft)

But sources of conflict can also be very insidious, and typically even more harmful if they go unnoticed. For example:

  • excluding people from events or emails
  • personality or ego clashes
  • not valuing others’ beliefs, background or experiences

Advising line managers to recognise these sources of conflict and ‘nip them in the bud’ seems obvious. However, there often exists an overwhelming temptation to ignore such alarm bells in the hope that issues will just die down or disappear entirely. This is exactly what should be avoided if bullying and harassment is to be afforded the proper attention in the workplace.

So how can line managers start to recognise and act upon potential bullying and harassment to prevent more substantial challenges from emerging?

Get to know your team

Understanding the individual members of your team will help you to:

  • identify their ‘trigger points’
  • anticipate potential conflict
  • talk explicitly with them about personal or work issues

Be aware of underlying tension

  • Monitor the relationships within your team
  • Hold regular informal communication with individuals, especially regarding tension

Acknowledge when team members are causing stress to colleagues

It can be effective to step in immediately and informally talk to the individual, especially if they are:

  • being overly critical
  • displaying a short temper
  • making personal remarks

Be clear on your standards of acceptable conduct

  • Remain professional by demonstrating organisational values
  • Treat all employees the same
  • Discourage negative conduct like talking behind others’ backs

Do not get involved in office politics or gossip

  • Intervene and explain why any malicious gossip is unacceptable (e.g. spreading rumours)
  • Encourage an open working environment which values everyone’s opinion
  • Keep employee issues private and confidential to the best of your ability

The above points serve to provide some insight into the numerous measures which can be taken as a line manager to manage potential conflict situations effectively, although these should really serve to raise more questions, for example: how do I monitor relationships within my team? Where should I draw the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable? By receiving effective training, line managers can begin to formulate their own answers to these questions, enabling them to more positively affect outcomes related to bullying and harassment within their workplace teams.

For those who are interested in enhancing their people management and conflict prevention skills, Navigator is delivering a training course focused on Dignity at Work on Thursday 12th March in Edinburgh. The course will delve into some of the above issues in further detail, as well as providing practical advice. For more details on how to book, check out our events page.

For any questions relating to this article, contact Scott.

27th January 2020