Communication between employees is essential to almost any workplace. While interactions between employees will often lead to collaboration and positive professional relationships which enhance the productivity of the workplace, disruptions can arise because of conflict. For HR conflict mediators, it is important to be able to recognize workplace conflict when it arises and to be able to respond appropriately as needed.

In this blog, you will learn how to identify some common instances of workplace conflict, and about the appropriate next steps, you can take as a conflict mediator. 

What is Workplace Conflict?

At a fundamental level, workplace conflict is simply any disagreement between employees that relates in some way to their work. It could be a conflict over a work-related issue, or something more personal that nevertheless carries on in the workplace. 

Also note that any conflict an employee may have with someone who is not an employee would not be considered workplace conflict- to be considered workplace conflict, the parties involved must include at least two employees. 

For an HR conflict mediator, the first step is to pick through the complexities of the conflict to determine whether it qualifies as workplace conflict. To help, here are a few examples of scenarios that may be perceived as workplace conflict.

Which of the following instances are workplace conflicts?

  • Employee 1 and employee 2 are arguing at work about politics while clocked in
  • Employee 1 is complaining about the fight they had with a spouse
  • Employee 1 and employee 2 are disagreeing with employee 3 about the best marketing strategy

Only the first and third situations are examples of workplace conflict. Both are happening in the workplace, involve employees, and will impact productivity. In fact, in the third situation, it is also directly related to work.

When does HR Need to Step in and Mediate?

So you’ve successfully determined that you’re witnessing an instance of workplace conflict. Your next task will be determining if to get involved, and if so, how. 

Choosing when to step into a situation is perhaps the most difficult aspect of ensuring a positive result. On one hand, stepping in too soon can cause an escalation or might simply be unnecessary. On the other, failing to address conflict early enough can lead to even bigger problems down the road. 

Here are some of the key signs that will help you know when it is time to get involved in a workplace conflict. Certainly, not all cases of workplace conflict that fall into one or multiple of these categories would warrant an HR response. However, if a conflict has any of these characteristics, it does mean that you should take a deeper look at the problem and seriously consider further action. 

What to Look For


Why it Matters

Conflicts that directly affect the ability of individuals to perform their jobs  Employee 1 and employee 2 are not communicating with each other, and as a result, some of their shared responsibilities are not being completed Employees need to be able to perform their jobs for the success of the workplace.
When one or more parties are threatening to quit  Employee 1 and employee 2 have been arguing, and employee 1 comes to HR and says he no longer is able to work with employee 2 If employees are threatening to quit, it is a sign that the individuals are probably not able to work effectively as long as the conflict continues. It is almost always more expensive for the company to train a new employee than to retain an existing one, so some additional conflict mediation is likely the best course forward.
If you are asked by one of the individuals involved to intervene Employee 1 comes to you asking for help mediating their dispute with employee 2 When employees come to an HR mediator for help, it typically means that they consider the matter to be serious and are looking for a response.  
If you are asked by another employee to intervene Employee 1 notices that employees 2 and 3 are arguing, and reports the incident to HR If other employees notice a conflict, it often means that the conflict is disruptive to the workplace. 

In general, think about the conflict at hand from the perspective of looking to maximize workplace productivity. If getting involved would be in the best interests of ensuring productivity, then do so- workplace conflict can have significant negative effects on productivity.

Workplace Conflict Management

When is HR not Required during a Workplace Conflict?

While it is necessary for HR to step in during some instances of workplace conflict, it is important to recognize that this is not always the case. Often, HR getting involved is simply unnecessary. After all, employees are only human, and some degree of conflict is to be expected. In other cases, the responsibility of responding to a situation may lie elsewhere. 

Some types of conflict can have little effect, or even be beneficial for workplace productivity. Employees who are allowed to disagree with each other may actually perform better, in large part due to the opportunity for bold innovation and new ideas that grow out of conflicting and diverse opinions. 

Remember that employees do not necessarily need to be best friends to work effectively together. This sort of low-level animosity is not necessarily a situation in which HR needs to be involved. Unless the dispute is affecting the ability of the employees to fulfill their responsibilities in the workplace, it probably is not something that needs to be addressed.  

Up to this point, we’ve talked about scenarios when an HR conflict mediator should not be involved because the conflict does not represent a meaningful threat to workplace productivity.

However, there are also other instances in which an HR conflict mediator is not suited to respond to a workplace conflict, even though they might still be of concern to the company. Below is a list of some situations in which HR should not get involved, and instead might want to pass responsibility to a different party. 



Next Steps

Conflict of Interest Employee 1 and employee 2 are feuding. Employee 1 is a part of the HR department and reports to you Seek outside conflict mediators
Legal Ramifications Involving the Employer Employee 1 is accusing employee 2 of gender discrimination Contact your legal team
Criminal Activity Employee 1 has a physical altercation with employee 2 Contact local law enforcement
Insufficient Workplace Conflict Training Employee 1 and employee 2 come to you with a conflict you have not been properly trained to mediate Seek outside conflict mediators or talk to management about pursuing training
Recurring Workplace Conflict Employee 1 and employee 2 have come to you several times about the same problem, with no end in sight Talk to management and seek alternate solutions.  

What Are Some Causes of Workplace Conflict?

First off, we want to emphasize that just as no two people are completely identical, no two conflicts are exactly the same- there is always complexity and nuance to what causes conflict. That being said, when crafting an appropriate response to any given situation, it can be helpful for a conflict mediator to understand and recognize some of the broadly defined causes of workplace conflict. Here are a couple of the most common causes of conflict to watch out for.

Resource Disputes

Perhaps the most common form of workplace conflict involves a resource dispute or a disagreement over the allocation of company resources. In a world where most companies and workplaces operate under a tight budget and limited resources, resource allocation can get competitive between certain departments and employees. The resources in question are most often financial and relate to department funding or salary, but can also include a variety of other limited resources such as time, training resources, or even physical workspaces.

Below are a few examples of workplace conflict as a result of a resource dispute. 

Employee 1 and employee 2 are both department heads and both want their own private office. However, there is only one office available.  In this instance, the limited resource is the private office. Conflict arises because two employees both want it and have an equal claim based on their position. 
Employee 1 and employee 2 both want to use the conference room at noon for client meetings.  The limited resource here is the conference room, and again conflict is caused because it is impossible for all the parties to use the resource as they desire. 

Putting Personal Goals Ahead of Workplace Goals

This is a big one, and definitely to be expected simply due to human nature and the way people interact with each other. At some level, most of us would be lying to ourselves if we did not admit to occasionally making decisions that benefit ourselves while ignoring the potential negative effects on others. 

On one hand, sometimes such personal interests can actually be beneficial to workplace productivity, caused by personal ambition and competition. More often than not, the personal benefits of a salary increase and a luxurious office are certainly a big part of the reason why some individuals drive for promotions. 

On the other hand, it can also lead individuals to look after their own interests first, even if those do not align with the interests of the workplace or employer. It can cause employees to lose sight of the overarching goals of the workplace, goals which they are hired to meet.

Here are a couple of examples of employees putting their own interests over company interests.

Employee 1 comes to their manager, employee 2, and says that he wants to take on some higher-level responsibilities and drop some of their more menial tasks. Employee 2 denies this request because the company is better off if Employee 1 keeps doing the same work.  This is a tough situation, where the interests of employee 1 cannot be met while also ensuring maximum benefit for the workplace. Workplace productivity is the top priority for the company, so employee 1 will likely be left disgruntled as their wishes have not been met. 
Employee 1 and employee 2 have been competing for a promotion. Employee 1 notices that employee 2 made a minor mistake on their recent sales report, and rather than correcting it and privately mentioning it to employee 2, decides to alert the manager.   In this case, employee 1 is making a decision that they know is actively resulting in potentially negative consequences for both another employee and the workplace. The promotion hopes of employee 2 are harmed, and the manager’s time is used up for a problem they otherwise would not need to be involved with. 

What are Some Tips for Conflict Mediation?

After properly analyzing a workplace conflict and determining that it does indeed require additional attention from HR, your next step should be to set up and execute mediation between the parties. Here are some proven conflict mediation tips which should help you work through the problems at hand and reach the best possible solution.

Research and Prepare

The first step to any successful conflict mediation is a confident, well-prepared HR conflict mediator ready to tackle the problem head-on. Before arriving for conflict mediation, you should take some time to try to understand the conflict as best as possible and get a good sense of the relevant company resources which may be used as part of a solution. If a solution is reached, make sure that it fits within the company’s budget, goals, and legal obligations. Nothing is worse as a conflict mediator than reaching a solution, only to discover later that it does not fit within the realm of possibility.

Directly Address the Source of Conflict

There is no use beating around the bush during conflict resolution- it is always best for a conflict mediator to get the source of conflict out in the open as soon as possible. Working out specific details on the periphery of the conflict is no more than a waste of time for everyone if the primary problem remains unresolved. Sometimes, it may be useful to break the ice by finding some sort of common ground, but always keep the main issue in mind when conducting conflict mediation. 

Be Creative with Solutions

As the conflict mediator, part of the responsibility to find manageable solutions falls to you. As a conflict mediator, you have the ability not only to provide a setting for employees to work out their problems but can also take an active role in the process by engaging directly with the involved parties to help find solutions. Using your deep understanding of the company policies and limitations, you may be able to find solutions that the other parties have not thought about. 

Keep Realistic Expectations

Sure, win-win conflict resolutions are great. In an ideal world, every conflict mediation would have this sort of result, where both parties feel completely happy with the result and end up friends with each other. Although many conflict mediations will come to win-win outcomes, this is not always, or even often the case. The perfect conflict resolution rarely exists, so instead feel satisfied as a conflict mediator with coming to an agreement that is most acceptable to all parties involved. 

Conflict Resolution Post-Pandemic  

As is the case with many other aspects of life in HR, the pandemic has significantly affected the nature of workplace conflict and changed what an HR response may look like. 

In some ways, an HR’s job is perhaps made a little bit easier because working remotely leads to fewer personal interactions between employees, thus diminishing the possibility for personal gripes and annoyances with other employees. The habits of employees have less influence on the work environment of their coworkers.  

However, employees are also more likely to be suffering from anxiety about the global situation, potentially leading to abrasiveness and some of the psychological behaviors commonly associated with conflict. Evidence also suggests that working from home only serves to increase depression and anxiety, even at the best of times. These extra personal concerns may be a cause for increased conflict as a result of placing personal interests over workplace goals. 

Likewise, the state of the economy and the uncertainty ahead has resulted in lost revenue for many companies, causing them to further limit resources. This may lead to an increase in resource disputes, as departments and individuals looking to maximize their own funds.

The remote work for many during COVID-19 also limits the ability of HR to observe potential workplace conflicts- it’s no longer possible to simply walk around the office and try to pick up on any clues that a conflict might be occurring. Remote work also limits the possibilities of conflict resolution, as a quiet casual word with an employee will now need to be carried out over a scheduled video or phone call. 

How has the pandemic changed your approach to workplace conflict?