SUMMARY: Conflict between employees where either or both have a mental health issue may be difficult to resolve where the resolution process requires the employees to discuss disagreements face to face. This may be intimidating or overwhelming. Here is an alternative process to consider.

This information may assist in helping to resolve workplace conflicts between employees, but may not be sufficient to address more serious workplace concerns such as bullying, harassment, threats of violence or other serious misconduct issues. More information is available in Harassment and Bullying Prevention and Violence Prevention.

The process

The individual who facilitates the process of conflict resolution could be a manager, union representative, human resources consultant or another person who is able to remain objective and has good communication skills. For the purposes of this discussion we have used the term facilitator to describe the individual who is conducting the conflict resolution process. 

  1. To begin the process, the facilitator meets with each employee separately to explain the entire process and fully explore three key questions (described below). The goal is to uncover what each employee believes is necessary, in terms of workplace behaviours moving forward, to maintain or restore a professional working relationship. Record all employee suggestions from the meeting in a way that can be applied to both parties equally. For example, rather than saying, "Joe should not yell anymore," the document would read, "Conversations will be in a calm and clear tone of voice."
     
  2. The facilitator then writes up a reasonable and specific agreement using as many of the suggestions as possible that were shared by both of the employees. The agreement should not make judgements about who is right or wrong. It should focus on new ways of interacting for which both parties will be equally responsible, going forward. It does not change job-related roles or responsibilities. Rather, it articulates respectful and practical ways of interacting and communicating that help each person feel his or her perspective is recognized and valued.
     
  3. The draft agreement should be shared with each employee separately. The facilitator will make any necessary and reasonable changes that are requested.
     
  4. Once an agreement has been reached, the facilitator brings both employees together. The facilitator reads the agreement aloud and both parties confirm in writing that they will follow the terms as a new way of interacting. Each should be supported in doing so, but also held accountable if they fail to follow the agreement. In rare cases, the agreement could articulate the basis for future discipline. In most cases, it will provide a respectful and dignified way to continue the relationship in a more professional manner.

Key questions for the facilitator to ask in private

When the facilitator meets privately with each employee, he or she should ask the following questions and allow them to answer fully before moving on. The facilitator can uncover many other suggestions or issues by asking, "And what else?" each time it appears that the employees have provided their full answer. This helps the facilitator avoid solving one issue only to have another surface in the future.

  1. What do you need to work professionally with this person?
    The conversation should stay focused on the specific, measureable behaviours that will allow the employees to work together in a professional manner. Opinions, assumptions or judgments in the agreement should not be included.
     
  2. What will you do differently to contribute to a successful working relationship?
    This question focuses on the employee's professional behaviour at work and awareness of how it may impact other people. If the employee says that he or she is already doing everything that he or she can (and therefore does not need to do anything differently), the facilitator should ask the employee to specify what it is that the employee does to contribute to a good working relationship. The response should be recorded in a specific and measureable manner as it can also form part of the agreement. The facilitator should also help each employee think about how their own reactions may contribute to the problems or make them worse.
     
  3. How do you believe we should deal with any future issues?
    This helps to establish in the agreement a process for resolving future conflict. This should include how issues will be dealt with in the moment (telling the manager, resolving on their own, involving others, etc.) and consequences if unacceptable behaviours arise again or new ones emerge.

Additional tips and strategies for the facilitator

  • Avoid making promises. Tell both parties that every effort will be made to find a solution that makes it easier for them to come to work, do a good job, and leave with energy at the end of the day.
     
  • Ensure confidentiality. Never repeat anything that either employee has discussed in confidence. Only refer to the solutions that are agreed upon.
     
  • Preserve the dignity of everyone involved. Throughout the process, ensure that the requirements in the agreement are reasonable workplace expectations that apply equally to both parties, and that they are consistent with workplace policies. This should not interfere with work roles and responsibilities as it focuses on personal, respectful communication approaches and interactions.
     
  • Allow reasonable opportunity for venting.  Neither agree nor disagree with any negative or derogatory statements. Listen, but then refocus the conversation on getting to an agreement about behaviours going forward, rather than rehashing who did what.
     
  • Focus on defining specific changes in behaviour at work. Link approaches to reasonable workplace standards and policies. Try to avoid approaches that focus more on personal characteristics rather than specific behaviours. For example, asking someone to contribute only positive feedback in team settings and critical feedback only to the supervisor in private can be more effective than asking someone to "be nicer."
     
  • Avoid forced apologies. Explore alternatives to them. Forced apologies are often requested, but are rarely effective when they are not genuine and do not address specific behaviour change in a solution-based way. If an employee insists on an apology, ask why. Continue to ask why for each successive answer. It is often the case that the apology is being demanded by an employee simply to ensure that the other employee does not continue to do something they find upsetting. The fact is that it is unlikely that a forced apology will result in permanently changed behaviours. Offer the idea that instead of an apology, a commitment to a change in behaviour will more likely produce the result they want to see. Reframe a demand for an apology into a request for a change in behaviour.
     
  • Ensure that you gather responses that are specific and measureable behaviours (e.g. not raising a voice louder than normal conversation level, refraining from sarcastic comments, etc.).
     
  • Explore the potential to gain a voluntary personal commitment to behave differently towards each other. This is usually more sustainable as a solution than enforcing behaviour changes. In most cases, any forced behaviour will continue only when being closely managed. A personal commitment is more likely to be sustained even if the change is difficult. This may not be possible in some situations.
  • Manage expectations in the face of unreasonable requests (i.e. related to disability rather than to work-related behaviours, such as "looking sad" while experiencing clinical depression). For techniques to guide a discussion about performance see Supportive Performance Management.
  • Solicit solutions from both employees. Then prepare an agreement that:
    • Keeps language focused on future positive behaviours and solutions.
    • Avoids including past negative behaviours or problems.
    • Makes sure the solutions are specific and measureable and set dates for follow up.
    • Includes, where necessary, any actions by you as facilitator or others that are pertinent to the agreement.
       
  • Write the agreement in inclusive language that honours both employees’ requests and commitments, and helps them adhere to the specific requests made by the other person. It could also include the expectation of generally respectful behaviour towards each other, and the process itself.
     
  • Share the draft agreement privately. Allow each employee to review and offer feedback, if any changes are needed.

Meeting to share the agreement

Prepare each employee for the meeting by reminding each of them that there is nothing they need to say. They will have already seen and agreed to the contents of the document. You will be reading the entire agreement to both of them and then asking them to commit to it.

After they have reviewed the draft agreement, ask each employee: Will you engage in the behaviours requested in this agreement?

Get agreement in writing that if these changes take place, each employee will be able to move forward in a respectful and professional manner. Make sure both employees, regardless of level of authority, understand they will be supported in doing so, but held accountable if they fail to follow the agreement.

 

Managing Conflict is a free module that is part of Managing Mental Health Matters. View it to see a video example of this process being carried out.

For employees who are seeking ways to resolve conflicts on their own, you may want to suggest they read Ideas for resolving conflict at work.

 

The majority of content on this page is adapted with permission from Resolving Workplace Issues (© 2011 Mary Ann Baynton & Associates Consulting).