HR’s Role in Workplace Conflict Resolution

Eric Mochnacz
November 3, 2023

HR’s role in workplace conflict management is multi-faceted.  Human Resources is tasked with being proactive to avoid conflict when it happens while being reactive when a conflict arises out of nowhere.  Conflict can be disruptive to the workplace and HR has the responsibility to actively address it.   

When to Bring in HR to Help Solve a Workplace Conflict 

Generally speaking, we believe HR has a responsibility to be involved in a conflict when it starts to disrupt the workplace.  Conflict is natural, and in most cases healthy for a workplace, but when it starts to impact productivity, violates company policy, or puts the company at risk, Human Resources has the obligation to intervene and address it.  If two coworkers are annoyed at each other because of something one said at the meeting, that doesn’t automatically mean HR needs to step in.  But, if the annoyance evolves into behavior and language between the two employees that starts to negatively impact their ability to get their job done, that’s a good sign it’s time for HR’s involvement. 

HR generally serves as an escalation point.  They are available as support to employees if they’re uncomfortable addressing conflict or have been unable to resolve the conflict independently.  Or if there have been numerous attempts to address the issue to no avail, HR has a requirement to intervene before it escalates beyond the point of no return.  HR takes a structured approach to conflict resolution, facilitates a solution, and ensures appropriate follow-up on any action items discussed during the resolution.  

How HR Can Help With Conflict Resolution in the Workplace 

Skilled HR professionals have spent their entire careers managing workplace conflict and working with stakeholders to drive resolutions when needed.  They use that experience to help managers address the conflict or address it themselves.  HR utilizes different mediation techniques and knowledge of HR best practices to successfully manage and resolve conflict.  

Set the Ground Rules 

HR plays a unique role in conflict mediation as they are there to support employees engaged in the conflict while also serving as the company representative.  Before two (or more) individuals can resolve a conflict, there needs to be clarity on the rules of engagement.  Setting ground rules protects the involved employees from incivility and allows HR to establish guidelines for a productive conversation that leads to actionable resolution items.  If you involve HR in your workplace conflict, they are accountable for the outcome, and in turn, set regulations on acceptable and unacceptable behavior.  Setting ground rules also keeps the conflict from devolving into a situation where the company needs to take disciplinary action against anyone involved.

Offer a Third-Party Perspective 

HR is the unbiased party when addressing conflict in the office.  Their perspective helps the participants move beyond their personal emotions and focus on solving the problem.  HR provides a practical approach to conflict within the context of company policy.  As a third party, their investment is in solving the issue, not in having one side “win” over the other.  Often, the conflict is solved when HR puts the conflict within the context of company policy, leading to an impartial outcome aligned with company regulations.  Human Resources also maintains confidentiality (where appropriate) when managing employee conflict.  Confidentiality is critical if HR is required to conduct an investigation into more serious allegations.  

Encourage Openness 

Because of their impartiality and general expectation of confidentiality, HR encourages openness by allowing participants to speak freely about the conflict.  The only way HR can facilitate a satisfactory solution is if the employees are honest about what is going on.  The only way people feel comfortable with honesty and transparency is if they know the outside party encourages honesty and openness.  And that HR isn’t going to tell everyone else in the office about their coworkers’ issues with each other.  

Find Common Ground

Even though we are talking about workplace conflict, employees are still people with rational needs and wants.  And most people, by nature, don’t want to be in conflict.  They want to resolve conflict to restore equilibrium to the relationship and to their workplace, where they spend the majority of their day.  A simple way HR helps restore balance is by finding common ground between those involved in the conflict.  Understanding how we’re more alike than different is the groundwork for moving toward a satisfactory resolution.

Get to the Root of the Problem

Once HR, as the impartial third party, can establish ground rules and common ground between the mediation participants, it’s time to get to work.  Although there are most likely emotions involved in the conflict, one way to better address conflict is to take the emotions out of it and clearly identify the problem.  Often when employees are engaged in conflict, I try to put the conflict in business terms.  I help them identify the problem statement, which is conducive to working together in establishing an appropriate, actionable solution.

Brainstorm Solutions 

When HR intervenes in a conflict, it’s so they can drive towards a solution acceptable to the employees and to the company.  A key to mediation is that the participants are the ones who brainstorm solutions because they are the individuals directly involved.  HR can tell people what to do, but if the employees haven’t contributed to the solution, they don’t have buy-in to the outcomes and are less likely to execute on them.  HR’s goal isn’t necessarily to solve the problem but to facilitate discussions among those in conflict and empower them to develop solutions they both believe in.  

Bring in an Experienced HR Consultant to Help Resolve Your Workplace Conflicts 

Workplace conflict can be benign, or it can escalate to the point where it presents legal ramifications, impacts team productivity, or leads to concerns about employee safety.  It’s critical your HR partner is able to proactively avoid conflict or address it appropriately and professionally when conflict arises.  Having a strong HR function, with skilled HR professionals, is a solution to managing conflict and mediating it when necessary.  Reach out to us to learn more about our methods for managing employee relations and navigating workplace conflict. 

Photo Credit – Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash 

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