I am a conflict resolution expert and “on a mission” to use my insights to improve workplace culture. Having mediated hundreds of workplace conflicts, I have experienced many problematic workplace cultures first hand, and can suggest 8 key things that HR should do right now to constructively reduce workplace conflict.

  1. Recruit your talent very carefully

Save the costs of performance management, coaching (and mediation by external experts like us) by recruiting your talent very carefully at the outset. Beyond the skills and competencies required for the role, think about the key values that would most closely align with your organisation’s values. You should be recruiting people who will share and actively promote your organisation’s values.

Don’t just rely on the candidate’s written references. Contact the referees and have a deep dialogue, asking questions to check on the values alignment.

If you carefully and strategically improve your recruitment practices, this will ultimately reduce the incidence of workplace conflict because you will have the right people on board from the start.

  1. Make space for conversations about what really matters

Induction and ongoing training on your Code of Conduct and workplace policies is critical. However, too many employees “tick and flick” the online training courses and then go on to breach the rules and infringe the policies. It’s time to bring training on policies and procedures to life through regular discussion about important topics using hypotheticals and case studies. Why not make it fun? And make it real. Roll up your sleeves and start conversations about what is real and why it matters. What is bullying? What is harassment? What is acceptable and what is not? What is unconscious bias and are we guilty of it? Engaging your teams in dialogue about what really matters is a pre-emptive strike to reduce workplace conflict.

  1. Stop tolerating poor behaviour

Some people find it easier to avoid issues rather than tackling them head on and this allows poor behaviours to be perpetuated. Managers need to develop competence to have difficult conversations about performance. Managers need training to develop this skill. If workplace policies have been clearly articulated and brought to life through training, then having performance conversations should be easier. In a nutshell, behind every performance related issue is a broken system. Fix the system, then deal with the behaviour.

  1. Be the enabler for conflict culture change

When people come to you with issues, don’t enable the conflict by listening to the venting and therefore supporting the entrenchment of the conflict. First, acknowledge the issue and then ask “what would a great outcome look like?” The next question is “what can you do to achieve that outcome?” A future focus will help HR to enable positive culture change, rather than to unwittingly play a part in conflict entrenchment.

  1. Watch your language

Language is a good indicator of culture. HR can subtly change the sentiment and the culture very effectively through language. Not “who did it” but “what can we do?” Not “what happened” but “how can we prevent this from happening again?”. “How can we learn from this?” is a powerful question and one that will send strong messages about continuous improvement out to the team.

  1. Design your conflict system to achieve early resolution

I am constantly amazed at how many organisations either have no conflict resolution procedure, a poorly drafted procedure, or a procedure that is not readily available to staff. Given that workplace conflict is inevitable, costly and damaging in so many ways, wouldn’t you think that designing procedures to achieve early identification and resolution of conflict would be a priority? Consider getting an external expert to review your systems. It’s not only about benchmarking your internal systems to an industry standard, it’s about thoughtfully designing a system that is appropriate and culturally aligned with your environment.

  1. Provide facilitation training to people managers

A standard feature of a conflict resolution procedure is a facilitated discussion with a line manager or HR manager. This should be an “interest based” conversation where the manager helps two or more people to see the other’s perspective and to explore options for resolution. If your managers are trained in facilitating difficult conversations, then most conflicts should be resolved at this stage. The double benefit of providing managers with facilitation training is that they achieve additional competencies and they can play an active role in resolving conflict and achieving positive culture change.

  1. Don’t just resolve conflict, prevent it

A reactive approach to workplace conflict means you are constantly on the back foot. Instead take some time in the helicopter to diagnose the conflict in your organisation. How many sick days are being taken? How much manager time is being lost managing conflict? How many workplace investigations have been conducted? What is the cost of this conflict to your organisation? Could these resources be better applied in taking the steps identified above?


By Nicole Cullen, Mediator.
Nicole is a member of the Australasian Association of Workplace Investigators (AAWI).