July 22, 2018

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Proactive, consistent approach reduces workplace conflict

Dear Joan:

My name is James and I am a graduate student. I am writing a paper on the attributes of a successful business.

My question is: Do you think that when starting a company (big or small), that it is important to discuss strategies of conflict resolution in the workplace?

I think that conflict resolution strategies might be an important part of an organization's foundation in order to be prepared for handling problems that might arise with employees.

Please let me know what you think, and I enjoyed your article "Coaching Employees to Handle Peer-to-Peer Issues.”


You raise an interesting point. Business start-ups usually have at their foundation a number of plans: a business plan, a strategic plan, a marketing plan…but I don’t usually see a company think through much of an HR plan.

That is probably because many businesses start out slowly, with only a few key employees. Then, as the business begins to grow—and people problems grow along with it—the owners hire an HR person or contract with an outside HR firm for services.

This is particularly true when a firm hits about 50 employees, since that makes them accountable for a number of government-imposed HR rules and regulations.

However, it doesn’t take many employees to stir up people problems. For example, say a business has two partners and one administrative assistant. If the two partners don’t clearly articulate clear responsibilities and decision-making authority, conflicts are inevitable. The administrative assistant will be caught in the middle if no clear process exists for resolving conflicts.

Here are some thoughts for business leaders who want to create a process for resolving conflicts before they grow into nasty problems:

Clarify decision-making authority. For example, in many start-ups, there are typically two main leader roles: operations and sales. Fifty/fifty partnerships sound great but rarely work as well as everyone hopes they will. Deciding who will have 51 percent of the vote will probably help break deadlocks down the road.

Open door policies are fine if they are clearly understood. As the company grows, you may need to make it clear that if employees take all their complaints or ideas to the owner, they may be re-directed back to their supervisor to work things out.

If the business has an HR function, employees and the HR person should have a clear understanding about what will be kept confidential and what information will go public. For instance, many employees feel betrayed when they go to HR for advice, only to find out later that HR told their manager about their problem.

If employees have a problem with their bosses, it would be helpful to let people know what their recourse is. For example, you might decide that employees are expected to work it out with their manager first, and if that doesn’t work, to go to their manager’s boss (or HR). Some businesses even have a peer committee that hears complaints and weighs in on solutions.

As the business gets larger, an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) can be useful, since they provide an outside, objective resource to help employees with personal and work-related problems.

Anyone who assumes a leader role should know what is expected. For instance, if senior management wants to avoid people problems down the road, they will select managers who have people skills, not just technical expertise.

Creating a harmonious culture takes work—not just hiring the right people. Leaders should make time for their management teams to discuss how best to communicate key information, deal with performance problems, and work through conflict situations. Leaders who regularly discuss these topics have far fewer conflicts because they are dealing with these issues proactively as they occur.

Joan Lloyd

Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (800) 348-1944,, or