You’ve done your best to staff your business with employees who are knowledgeable, hard-working and reliable. But you might find yourself with workers who butt heads from time to time.
The dismissive comments they sling back and forth in the conference room, the rolling eyes they exchange on the sales floor, their refusal to speak to one another in the stock room — everyone notices, and it’s causing bad vibes and tension among the rest of your staff. So, what do you do? Ignore the problem? Encourage them to talk it out? Fire them both?
Almost every business owner has had to deal with feuding employees, and the good news is that there are ways to solve the problem and restore peace and order to your business.
Acknowledge the problem
There’s a reason the first step in alcohol-addiction recovery is to recognize that you do indeed have a problem — because you can’t possibly fix what you won’t acknowledge.
“Pay attention to the signs that conflict may be brewing,” says Kathleen Taylor-Gadsby, business coach and president of KTG Leadership Solutions in Sachse, Texas. “Are there regular minor disagreements between two employees? Does one employee ask that they not be scheduled [to work] with a specific person?” These are tell-tale signs of trouble in the workplace.
It can be very difficult to notice the subtle signs that trouble is brewing. As the boss, you can’t possibly be everywhere and see everything, so it’s best to make sure that your managers have instructions to keep an eye out for any problems. To keep the lines of communication open, try holding weekly meetings with your managers to discuss business in general, as well as the performance of employees, Taylor-Gadsby says.
One-on-one meetings and/or roundtable discussions with employees are also recommended. This practice can not only clue you in to potential interpersonal conflicts, it may also help you identify business tools or processes that are impeding productivity or causing conflict, Taylor-Gadsby says.
Air out the issues
Once you’ve discovered that there is, in fact, a feud between employees, don’t ignore it. Turning a blind eye may be many people’s go-to method for problem solving, but in the long run it only makes things worse.
“The longer it goes on, the more it will negatively impact other employees, the customer and productivity,” Taylor-Gadsby says.
Getting to the root of the issue will involve a conversation with the feuding parties, but this should be done individually, so you can clearly understand each person’s take on the situation, says Nancy Saperstone, senior HR business partner and communications specialist at Insight Performance, an HR consulting firm in Boston.
“You’ll also want to make sure there’s no underlying harassment or discrimination [issues],” she says.
If the conflict springs from discrimination or harassment, then it’s best to have an attorney or outside HR consultant conduct interviews with the alleged harasser, victim and anyone who might have witnessed the incidents. Saperstone also recommends that the information be kept in an investigation file, and further action should be taken in accordance with your company policy.
If the situation proves to be harassment- and discrimination-free, get both feuding parties in a room together with you to air out their grievances — calmly and quietly. If you have an HR person, Saperstone recommends letting him or her in on the meeting to facilitate a discussion about behavior expectations and a respectful workplace.
“Remind them as a retail business, they are customer-facing and the expectations associated with that,” she says. “The employees should agree to how they will behave going forward.”
Hopefully, your feuding employees will be able to recognize the inappropriateness of their past behavior, come to terms about whatever they were in disagreement about, and put their differences behind them. But if they can’t agree to play nicely and respect the fact that there’s no room for high school-caliber spats in an adult place of business, then the next play is completely up to you. And the decision you see fit to hand down could be anything from a warning to a transfer, or worse.
Gabe Givan, owner of Sonoma Backyard in Cotati, Calif., felt he had no choice but to reassign an employee who couldn’t get along with his co-worker.
“We had a two-man delivery crew responsible for delivering products to our customers, and we started noticing an increase of issues upon deliveries, such as forgotten items,” says Givan. “After talking with other employees, it was discovered that the employees who were doing the deliveries had basically stopped talking to each other. There had been an argument, and things were left unsettled.”
Their lack of communication was now starting to result in frustrated customers and extra work for other employees, “which is unacceptable,” says Gavin. To resolve the issue, Gavin held individual meetings with both employees. A meeting with everyone involved was held to clear the air but, unfortunately, the two employees continued to have problems with each other. Ultimately, one employee was sent to work on the pool construction side of the business, where there was no longer a need to communicate with the other employee.
Follow up and follow through
No matter which disciplinary action you choose to take, understand that the problem may not be completely squashed, forgotten, or in the past. It may just be an indication that it’s time to deal with round two: the aftermath.
“I doubt there could ever be any way to ensure things are ‘squashed,’” says Chris Callanan, owner of North Shore Pool & Spa in Wakefield, Mass. ,“since we are dealing with human emotions.”
Some tidbits of anger, hostility or overall drama may linger in the air. Some employees might be happy that one half of a feuding party was moved to another department or let go, while others may miss that person and begin directing their anger toward you. To prevent further pockets of conflict, convey the idea that the success of one employee is dependent on the success of every other, Callanan says, and that if everyone’s getting pulled into everyone else’s drama, then the team can’t operate as it should. This gives workers a vested interest in preventing feuds in the workplace, he says.
If moving staffers around wasn’t necessary, and you only saw fit to issue a warning and a promise to monitor the behaviors of both employees moving forward, you must stay true to your word.
“If you feel you have resolved the conflict, then your role is to park the conversation and monitor the actions of the two parties, making note that you will check in on them in the months to come,” says Troy Hazard, a non-executive director and shareholder in the U.S. arm of Poolwerx in Phoenix.
Failure to follow up and follow through may result in the original conflict issues resurfacing in the not-too-distant future.
And while you’re busy following up with the feuding parties, don’t forget about your other employees. They’ve had a hard time dealing with all of this, too. Once again, open communication may be one of the best ways to ensure a smooth post-feud atmosphere. Hazard recommends spearheading some team-building exercises and logging in some one-on-one time with staffers in order to make sure that everyone is back on track.
“These are all great ways to work out who is on board after the dust has settled,” says Hazard. “And have the entire team check back in.”