Stay Calm & Carry On: Tips for Dealing with Workplace Disputes

two men arguing

You say this, they say that. You think something is obvious, but your employees seem to think otherwise. One of the great challenges in dealing with workplace disputes is that, as the business owner or manager, 99% of issues that arise appear to be cut-and-dried as far as you’re concerned. You tell employees to be on time. You ask them to be courteous to customers. You require them to report certain things accurately and consistently. This should be straightforward, right?

And yet, these assumptions – now matter how justified you may feel (or be) in having them – set the wrong foot forward, because they immediately make any situation that arises into an oppositional dispute that can rapidly escalate out of control.

Remember, the goal in dealing with any workplace problem is to do what is best for the business — not what feels best for the business owner. Here are five tips you can keep in mind the next time you confront an unexpected situation with your employees:

1. Don’t get upset. No, really. Don’t get upset.

It’s so easy to take affront (especially when you’re caught off-guard) that you often don’t realize you’ve already acted in error until it’s too late. Your routinely late and on-the-verge-of-being-fired employee comes in one day and files for a disability claim. Ten seconds later, your pulse is racing, your blood pressure is 1,000 over 500, and you’re about to explode.

Don’t. In fact, if you must, just leave and take a walk (not a drive – we don’t want you driving angry!). Take a breather and take a step back. The only correct response when these situations arise and you’re about to lose your cool is to tell the employee that they need to document their concern or issue in writing, and hand it in formally for review. Conversation over. That’s it.

2. Less is more. So say less. Much less.

While we’re on the topic, this is NOT the time to unload. “Well, Frank, it’s pretty convenient that you’re filing for disability now that you’ve been late twenty days in a row, isn’t it?” would be the wrong response. The right response is none at all. Again, don’t say anything.

Remember, you don’t have to say anything! You’re being notified of a situation, so take the notification and put it somewhere (like on your desk). Then let it sit until you’re ready to review it — with your HR director, in the conference room, with all related documents and procedures in front of you.

3. Follow the law. Don’t assume that you are the law.

One thing we discuss regularly on this blog is that, while you have many rights as an employer, your rights can be quickly curbed when you least expect it. Employees may be able to use office email to organize, they might be able to put up posters in your break room about their grievances, and they might even be able to claim that the blue sky is currently red instead. To you, it’s all nonsense — the sky is blue, the business is yours, they are just lucky to have a job, etc. etc. etc.

That’s exactly the situation when employers assume they “have the law on their side” without knowing if they really do. Remember, the law can be on your side one moment and then, as soon as you do something out of anger, that same law can run away, hand a victory to a disgruntled employee, and leave you in the dust (or worse).

The best way to know if the law is on your side is to speak with the professionals who will know – your HR director or consultant, and your attorney. Don’t do anything they don’t advise you to do. Your job is to follow the law, not try to take it into your own hands.

4. Don’t discuss an issue publicly, in person or online.

Don’t. Discuss. It. Trust us, you’ll start doing so without even realizing it, because when we’re angry our frustrations tend to squeeze out of every corner in our minds and mouths. That’s why you need to be aware of this up-front and place yourself under a self-imposed gag order.

Don’t discuss it means don’t discuss it directly with employees (including other managers, if doing so doesn’t apply to following your written procedures). It also means not inferring it or implying it, no matter how indirectly. It means zero, and we mean zero, disparaging remarks or innuendos. It means no social media postings – and no blog articles! It also means no discussion or venting with your CEO peer group (like Vistage), either.

5. Let the documents drive the process.

A well-managed HR operation is properly prepared for any situation that may arise because it has two kinds of documents in-hand and updated at all times. One kind is your policies and procedures, which will dictate how the process of responding to the situation which has arisen should go. And the other kind is the employee-specific documents such as a personnel file, time cards, hiring forms, etc. which provide a clear and unambiguous record upon which to build your response.

Bottom Line: The goal in dealing with any employee dispute is to protect the business, not burst a blood vessel. Let your well-formulated processes and procedures, backed by complete and accurate documentation, guide the response to any situation that arises. Then, take yourself personally out of the middle so that the frustrations can subside and you see the situation objectively, rather than personally and emotionally. Finally, before doing anything, consult with your HR professional and business attorney for proper counsel.

Selected Sources:

10 Tips for Dealing with Workplace Problems

Grievance Procedures and Internal Dispute Resolution

Resolving Employment Disputes

Image Credit: kurtb (Flickr @ Creative Commons)

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