Managing conflict in the workplace

The way your business handles conflict can have a big impact on your profits, as well as staff productivity and morale. Good management practices can help you avoid unnecessary conflict and deal with inevitable conflict in an effective and professional manner.

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Workplace conflict is not uncommon, and it's not always a bad thing. Handled in the right way, it can even:

  • identify problems you weren't aware of
  • improve relationships, morale and productivity
  • lead to employee growth and insight.

However, if you don't address conflict, it can become more serious, take longer to solve, and need more effort from everyone involved.

Common causes of workplace conflict

Knowing the most common causes of workplace conflict can help you plan ahead to prevent it and handle it if it does happen. The following are examples of factors that might lead to conflict. Consider which of these could become a problem in your workplace:

  • broken agreements, or expectations that are not met
  • a lack of necessary skills
  • a lack of information or misunderstandings
  • conflicting interests, values or ideas
  • discrimination or harassment
  • mental illness
  • challenging personality types
  • clashing work styles
  • leadership issues
  • not enough resources
  • bad (corrupt or fraudulent) intentions.

The cost of conflict in your workplace

Most managers spend a significant part of their time dealing with grievances, and many employee performance problems are the result of strained relationships, rather than a lack of skill or motivation.

Unresolved workplace grievances will cost you and your business money through, for example:

  • decreased productivity and work quality
  • higher employee turnover and absenteeism
  • lower workplace morale
  • increased stress and health risks
  • damaged business reputation
  • potential legal expenses.

Every conflict is different

Make sure you have a good understanding of the grievance (including the people affected and the nature of the conflict) as soon as you can. This will help you to manage the conflict better and make an informed decision about the best way to address it.

Develop a grievance-resolution process

Effective grievance (or dispute) resolution is an important part of good business management. Having a clear grievance-resolution process will:

  • help your business avoid conflict and prevent unavoidable conflict from escalating
  • help to save time and money
  • show you're committed to promoting a healthy work environment
  • ensure employees and managers know what to do when they have to deal with a grievance.

A grievance-resolution process can only be implemented successfully if it's supported by the business owners, management and employees. When you develop your grievance-resolution process, make sure:

  • your employees and managers are aware of the process and are confident to use it
  • it suits your business
  • it works for all parties.

Steps to consider for your grievance-resolution process

Consider the following steps for your grievance-resolution process:

  1. If possible and appropriate, the employee should try to resolve the matter directly with the people involved.
  2. If it can't be resolved in this way, the employee should refer their grievance to their manager. The employee should inform the manager about the:
    • nature and details of the grievance
    • outcome the employee would like to see.
  3. If it's not appropriate for the employee to try and resolve the grievance with their manager, or if it can't be resolved this way, the employee should refer the grievance higher up the management chain. To do this, the employee must inform the next level of management in writing about the:
    • nature and details of the grievance
    • outcome the employee would like to see.
  4. The higher management level decides what action (if any) is appropriate and if the complaint needs to be investigated further. It then notifies the employee of the decision in writing.

It's important to set reasonable timeframes for each stage. Keep in mind, however, that the stages will depend on the type of grievance and the people involved.

Best-practice principles for a grievance-resolution process

The Fair Work Ombudsman's effective dispute resolution guide describes best practice principles for developing a simple process in your business. The process should aim for dispute resolution outcomes that are:

  • quick – resolve issues quickly, rather than allowing them to become more serious through inaction
  • fair – consult everyone involved to make sure you're considering all sides of the conflict
  • handled sensitively – where possible, resolve disputes in a confidential way to minimise the impact
  • transparent – the dispute process should be clear to every employee, so everyone knows what to do and what to expect.

Improve conflict resolution skills

People are better able to deal with conflicts in a professional, productive and positive manner if they:

  • are trained in dispute resolution techniques
  • possess good communication skills.

Arrange training

Help your employees and managers resolve problems early and avoid major disruptions to your business by developing their conflict resolution skills. You can:

Identify an employee to deal with grievances

Consider appointing an experienced employee with the necessary skills and ability to deal with grievances – particularly complex or escalating grievances. The person you appoint should:

  • be able to negotiate and communicate with management at all levels
  • be senior enough to ensure grievances are dealt with at an appropriate level
  • liaise with all necessary employees
  • implement any changes that emerge from the process
  • be someone who can be trusted to maintain confidentiality.

Find help and information

As an employer, you need to know your rights and responsibilities. Having the right information will give you confidence when settling workplace grievances and ensure you are meeting your obligations as an employer.

If you're not able to resolve a workplace conflict, seek professional advice and assistance.

The Queensland Government's dispute resolution centres have trained mediators who can help those involved in a workplace dispute to reach a satisfying agreement. Mediation sessions are usually attended by a mediator who acts as impartial third party. Their role is to:

  • help clarify the parties' issues
  • keep the meeting on track
  • make sure everyone has a chance to be heard.

They can also help you develop systems to prevent or manage conflict in your business.

Employers and employees can request assistance from the Fair Work Ombudsman to assess workplace disputes or conflict and provide a response. Responses may include:

  • information and advice on rights and obligations
  • practical tools and resources that can assist with dispute resolution
  • inquiring and investigating potential non-compliance
  • using notices, enforceable undertakings or legal proceedings in response to non-compliance.

Find more information from the Fair Work Ombudsman on fixing a workplace problem.

The Workplace Advice Service is a free, independent legal assistance program for small businesses and employees. The program, offered by the Fair Work Commission, provides advice on topics including:

  • dismissal
  • general protections
  • workplace bullying.

Read more about the Workplace Advice Service, including eligibility and how to request a consultation.

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