Director’s Toolbox: Managing Employee Conflict

Managing Employee Conflict: Without getting yourself into hot water

At some point, anyone who is responsible for managing people will be faced with that challenging employee. You know the one who is difficult to deal with, has trouble working with colleagues, or fails to hit their KPIs and deliver.

It’s important to nip any problems in the bud sooner rather than later. Assuming (or hoping!) that poor performance or behaviour will improve in time or disappear on its own is dangerous, as it can often begin to impact on the performance, morale and attitude of the wider team if left unchallenged.

Knowing how to deal with these issues can be tough but it should be a top priority for employers and managers. It is also vital to identify if the situation is a matter of capability (performance) or conduct (behaviour), as this will help to identify the most appropriate way to manage the situation.

What’s the difference between capability and conduct:

Capability refers to an employee’s skill, aptitude and physical or mental quality, and broadly covers performance and ill-health. Conduct covers issues such as constantly being late, inappropriate communications, theft and violent or threatening behaviour.

Occasionally, issues will straddle capability and conduct. For example, an employee may regularly fail to attend important meetings which impacts on their ability to deliver on their KPIs. This conduct has a negative effect on their job performance or capability, and in turn this could have an impact on the whole organisation or team.

Dealing with these issues is vital as it can have a wider impact on your business, leading to higher absenteeism and staff turnover; affecting your company’s reputation and ultimately the bottom line.

However, establishing the cause is critical for employers. It will determine the procedure that is followed and action that is taken. For instance, the employee’s non-attendance could be caused or contributed to by ill-health or other factors, some of which carry with them legal protection for the employee.

How to address issues with an employee:

Managing problem employees can be time consuming, draining and frustrating. You just need the job done and under pressure yourself, it can be hard for managers to put their own frustrations to one side – however you must. The expectation placed on employers is such that there should never be an impulsive “you’re fired” Alan Sugar moment. You will find yourself in hot water no matter what the provocation.

Following the ‘right’ procedure is important. Not only will it often address the issue, if it doesn’t you will be in a strong position to take a decision to dismiss with minimal risk of a claim against you (or at least a claim that is likely to be successful).

If managers notice that something is not going well then it is their responsibility to address it. Any issues must be dealt with quickly, professionally and consistently and as and when they arise. This can be through processes such as 1-2-1’s and appraisals, which are an effective way of keeping things in check. If things are left, an employee’s retort will often be, “well, it hasn’t been a problem in the past”.

These types of processes enable the relationship between employee and manager to thrive and builds trust which is critical in any successful business. It also provides a mechanism by which things can be nipped in the bud swiftly and informally.

Through open, honest and supportive discussion, ways to support and assist the employee to improve the situation can be identified. This could include additional training, the use of a buddy or in the case of missed deadlines, a review of current workload to help the team member identify priorities. Discussions might also pinpoint issues at home or with their health, and lead to temporary or permanent adjustments to their working hours.

This may not be an overnight fix, but it is a step in the right direction. There will be occasions when the poor performance or inappropriate conduct does not improve, or worst case, deteriorates, and you must know what to do to move things on so that the employee understands the consequences.

As an employer, there are some obligations placed on you and it is important that as a manager of people that you are aware of what these are. These include that employees should be given an opportunity to respond to concerns about their conduct or performance, they are given warnings to improve and details of the consequences of repeat conduct or continuing underperformance before any decision to dismiss them as a last resort is taken.

These basic obligations should be set out in your organisation’s handbook as a policy or policies and should be reviewed regularly and kept up to date.

Of course, being in a management position doesn’t mean that you’re instantly an expert on knowing how to deal with such issues and so if you are facing this type of situation, then get in touch with a professional HR practitioner, who can work with managers and leaders to help build their confidence and capability as well as deal with the situation itself.

Think of your employees like your children. If you notice that something is not going well, then your responsibility as the parent is to educate them. It should be done respectfully and with a kind heart. Shouting and bawling at them will only result in lots of tears, probably on both sides!

Like being a parent, there is no manual when managing people, but here are some tips to help
you stay in control and get the right outcome:

1.      Document specific incidents of poor performance or behaviour.

2.      Put yourself in the right frame of mind and give yourself time to prepare before you meet with the team member. Maintain your professionalism – holding difficult conversations is never easy and sometimes the responses may not be polite and can be emotionally charged and regretted afterwards.

3.      Know what you are dealing with and have all the facts. If you do not have all the facts, be prepared with the right questions!

4.      Be timely and speak with the team member privately and promptly.

5.      Listen to what your employee has to say and don’t interrupt, however tempting.

6.      Be clear about your expectations and agree a set of actions with your team member so that there is commitment to improve. Confirm what you have discussed and what has been agreed in writing.

7.      Give a clear warning, if appropriate, and make clear the consequences of not meeting the expectations.

8.      Ensure that your contracts and handbook are kept up to date.

9.      Follow up – recognise where improvements are being made and if appropriate address any continuing concerns using your internal processes (disciplinary procedure or capability procedure).

10.    Ask the experts – if you are not confident in handling these types of issues then the experts can help with advice, guidance and training. MAD HR runs a series of people management courses to help leaders and those with responsibility for HR matters, to understand their responsibilities and build their capability so they can manage their team competently and confidently.

Carole Burman is the founder and Managing Director of MAD-HR, an HR consultancy that supports SMEs throughout East Anglia T: 01473 360160 E: or visit Twitter @wearemadhr

Julie Temple is Head of Employment at Birkett Long, giving legal advice tailored to the individual client’s needs. T: 01206 217318 E: or visit

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