How Much Time do You Spend Dealing With Employee Disputes at Work?

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Mar 16, 2011

I’ve worked as a manager for a long time and sometimes feel there is nothing I might encounter anymore that would surprise me — until, of course, I bump into something that does.

That’s because it is pretty much a given that one of the things a manager or HR professional handles some of the time is conflict resolution.

Yes, they spend time sorting out problems — among individuals, among work units, among departments, sometimes among divisions. It can be a thankless job, but the more effectively you can handle and sort out such conflicts the more effective your employees and unit will be getting to the REAL job at hand.

There’s no telling how many hours I have spent in my career resolving people conflicts on the job, but take it from me, it’s been a lot. That’s why this latest survey about how long we spend resolving employee disputes piqued my curiosity.

Nearly 20% of time spent on staff conflicts

According to a new Accountemps survey, managers said they spend, on average, 18 percent of their time — more than seven hours a week or nine weeks per year — intervening in employee disputes.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds a little low to me.

The survey by Accountemps, the staffing service for temporary accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals, was conducted by an independent research firm and is based on telephone interviews with more than 1,000 senior managers at companies with 20 or more employees.

Managers were asked, “What percentage of management time is wasted resolving staff personality conflicts?” The mean response was 18 percent.

“Although staff management is part of the job for supervisors, too much time spent handling disputes gets in the way of business priorities and often signals a larger issue needs to be addressed,” said Max Messmer, chairman of Accountemps and author of Human Resources Kit For Dummies, in a press release that accompanied the survey results. “For example, being chronically short-staffed can cause friction among employees, as can an overly competitive work environment.”

Messmer added, “Workplace conflicts can never be fully eliminated, but there are steps managers can take to foster greater team harmony.”

5 tips for minimizing people issues on the job

Accountemps offered five tips for minimizing personality conflicts on the job, and although they seem a bit broad and somewhat obvious to me, they are good basic advice. Here are the five, along with my managerial insight about each one:

  1. Know when to step in. You don’t want to interject every time a minor issue arises, but you can’t afford to turn a blind eye to problems that jeopardize the group’s output. Before morale and productivity are impacted significantly, work with those involved to identify the reason for the conflict, clear the air, and determine ways to address future disagreements. Another view: As parents know all too well when they deal with children, sometimes it pays to know when to get into a problem and when to stay out because sometimes, issues resolve themselves. That can be true in the workplace, too, but given the potential for a problem to cause others grief, I would always opt for dealing with something sooner-rather-than-later.
  2. Don’t let one bad apple spoil the bunch. When friction is clearly stemming from the actions of a single individual, remind that person that the ability to collaborate and treat coworkers with respect is a requirement of the job. Another view: The big question when you have one “bad apple” that effects everyone else is “is this person worth this kind of grief?” Yes, talking to them like an adult (as Accountemps suggests) is important, but may ultimately be futile if they don’t understand this from the start. The real issue may be how much can you rein in their behavior, and is it worth all this kind of trouble anyway?
  3. Help employees get to know each other. Provide opportunities for your staff to interact in non work activities, such as lunches or volunteer activities; familiarity can breed greater understanding. Another view: Close staff interactions in non work activities is always a good thing, and it does a lot more than breed greater understanding — it can help build a close-knit team. And, building a strong and close-knit team is a key duty for managers everywhere.
  4. Reward positive role models. Dole out praise, promotions and choice assignments to individuals who contribute to a supportive work environment. Recognizing staff for being team players sends a clear message that how they interact with others is as important as their job performance. Another view: It always makes sense to reward great performance and support others, but don’t be surprised if some don’t see it, recognize it, or buy into it. Good role modeling is great, but my experience is that the problem children you spend the most time resolving conflicts with are mostly oblivious to it.
  5. Make good hiring choices from the start. Hiring individuals with excellent interpersonal skills who are a good fit with your organization’s culture will reduce the potential for future conflicts. Another view: This is easier said than done. Nobody bats 1.000 in the hiring game, and nobody hires a person they think might cause conflicts later. Sometimes, hires just don’t pan out regardless of how much you focus on “fit” with your organization. Where I have had trouble is when I stretched to hire someone with great skills who clearly exhibited a vibe that would be tough to handle in the workplace. For the most part, the great skills turned out to not be worth the trouble they caused due to the issues that came up with everyone else on the job, but remember — no risk, no reward. Sometimes you need these types on your team if you want to get to the next level.

These tips from Accountemps are good in a basic knowledge sort of way, but there’s a lot more to managing workplace personality conflicts than can possibly be listed here.

And the notion that managers and HR pros spend 18 percent of their time dealing with people conflicts seems low. From my experience, I would put the figure more at 30-35 percent, because when people come together in just about any human endeavor, there are bound to be conflicts.

In fact, handling conflicts is one of the key parts of the job. You don’t need to be a manager very long to figure that out.