As a business owner or Human Resources professional, you're aware of employee tensions and occasional outbursts of anger or frustration. They're common to the workplace. And things usually settle down in a day or two. But sometimes they don't. Sometimes things get worse, or even spiral unexpectedly out of control. How can you know which conflicts need your involvement and which can be allowed to resolve themselves?
As a Conflict Resolution professional, I hear these questions often. Here are the Top 5 Situations where Intervention is Necessary, along with my rationale for why it is time to step in.
1. Repeat Complaints
As the most common problem requiring intervention, repeat complaints are also the one most likely to be ignored or given a low level of attention. Why? Complaints between employees are often chalked up to personality differences or viewed as minor or commonplace. Repeat complainers may even become branded as being the problem itself.
The reality: Repeat complaints signal a level of urgency. When a number of people share the complaint, the problem is widespread. If one person is complaining, and running the risk of being labeled as a result, the problem is most likely unbearable for them. In either event, keep in mind that when you hear a complaint, you're only hearing about the tip of the iceberg. There is always more that lies beneath the surface - and you need to find out more.
2. Frequent or Unexpected Turnover or Transfer Requests
While turnover issues get noticed, it's typically because the focus shifts to replacing the lost or transferred individuals. HR or Management may rationalize the reasons for such departures, or (if the employees are not of particular value to the company) they may be unconcerned about the staffing changes. But the key words here are "frequent or unexpected". Turnover and transfer requests are usually precipitated by problems or dysfunction within the department or team from which they are occurring.
Waiting to step in and address such issues sends an unfortunate message that either HR/Management doesn't recognize the problem, doesn't know what to do about the problem, or simply doesn't care that the problem exists. In any event, the problem will snowball and more staff will leave, including those you can't afford to lose.
3. Legal Concerns
Let's say you learn through the grapevine that an employee is making general threats of legal action. Or, you hear words like "hostile work environment" or "harassment" floating among certain groups. Unfortunately, HR or Management frequently start their efforts to address this issue by getting in touch with their legal adviser, focusing on their departments' record-keeping, and ensuring that all requisite training programs, like sexual harassment training, are up to date and documented.
Reasons for this point of focus range from disbelief that the problem or threat is significant, concern that addressing the issue will make things worse, or wanting to wait until the affected person approaches or informs them directly. Unfortunately, I see these asr duck and cover efforts. They are not focused on resolving the problem, but on insulating the company from further damage.
The problem is that time is being wasted. If the issue is minor, there is no need to perform an audit of all record-keeping; if instead the issue is serious - any delay means you are losing the opportunity to minimize damages or nip the potential problem in the bud.
4. Arguments or Tensions are Intensifying or Never-Ending
Sometimes HR or Management is aware of a problem, but no one has asked for help and there are no concerns about bullying, harassment, or other workplace violations. The problem is simply chalked up to a "personality difference" between employees. Due to limited time and resources, such problems are often given little, if any, attention. However, when these conflicts intensify or are long-lasting it is no longer appropriate for helpers to remain on the sidelines. Whether there are complaints or not, such tensions will lead to problems with morale, increases in turnover and absenteeism, and possibly even lead to workplace violence. Further, the longer these problems fester, the worse it will get. While there is no line in the sand to say when it is time to step in based on time or intensity of the problem, it is imperative that you keep such issues on your radar, and have a plan for addressing them.
5. Tensions among Top-level Staff
Human Resource professionals and mid-level management often hit a brick wall when there are tensions or problems among top-level staff. They often see the issue or feel the impact, but are unable to create change or resolve the issue. Why? Trying to help those in a position of power above you creates its own strife. Add to that the limited authority HR often holds, and the confined level of trust or respect they typically enjoy when it comes to working with the C-suite executives and owners. It's a near impossible situation to contend with. HR may want to help, but are limited and/or fearful of doing so. Regardless of these limitations, it's not OK to wait. Expecting things to blow-over is a fallacy. Chances are that by the time HR has becomes aware of problems at the top, things have already deteriorated. And while things may go into temporary remission, most likely because of the recent exposure to HR or other staff members, anger and grudges do not go away because we ignore them. They fester, grow, and become more explosive and damaging over time. Problems at the top are like an avalanche, and can easily destroy all that lies beneath them.
If you recognize that intervention is needed for these or other reasons, please contact us to discuss how we might help you address these challenging situations.