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Workplace Disputes, Drama, and Defections — What’s an Employer To Do?

by Jennifer Shaw and Julia Melnicoe Insel | | October 24, 2023

One of the trickiest issues employers face is infighting among teams, key players, and leadership. It can creep up in any number of ways: turnover may be increasing, employees never seem satisfied, and management can’t seem to get along.  Maybe the complaints are stacking up, and it feels like your organization is in an endless state of investigation.  Every project seems stalled out, because no one can work together to get it to the finish line.  The real question is, how do you fix it?

Of course, this is partly the role of Human Resources.  But there’s a limit on what can be done from that vantage point. First, the most serious workplace conflicts take place at the executive, board, or leadership level, which inverts the usual power dynamic between employees and HR.  A Human Resources Manager realistically doesn’t hold much sway over a feuding COO and CFO, both of whom are invaluable to the business.

Even when drama is happening at a lower level, Human Resources may not be able to facilitate a solution if HR isn’t viewed as a truly neutral party.  For instance, a newer manager who can’t get along with a colleague may not be willing to seek assistance if they believe the colleague has an established relationship with Human Resources.

Resentment and negative feelings also abound after an internal investigation.  When Human Resources has spent weeks interviewing witnesses, assessing credibility, making findings, and doling out discipline, the last thing upset employees want is to rehash it all again with Human Resources (and let’s be real, it’s the last thing HR wants to do, too).

Finally, most Human Resources professionals simply aren’t trained in mediation or collaborative conflict resolution.  It’s quite the opposite, in most cases: HR generally is responsible for acting as the liaison between employees and the organization, not as a collaborative mediator between peers.  Because a Human Resources employee is really acting on behalf of the organization, it is often impossible for them to intervene in a dispute as a neutral party.

So, why are we talking about this on our blog, which is generally reserved for keeping you apprised of the whims of California employment law?  Consider this our announcement: as part of our commitment to holistic workplace wellness, we’re now offering employee mediation and collaborative dispute resolution services.

Why use us?  We’re trained in court-approved mediation techniques to facilitate relationship repair among employees, address toxic team culture, and help employees rediscover their shared perspectives.  Just like with our investigation practice, we offer a truly neutral option for when HR is just too close to the problem.  We bring our nearly two decades of experience with thousands of employers nationwide (including as former litigators!) in which we’ve learned to spot how disputes start, and how they spin out of control.  We can identify concealed EEO issues that might cause liability down the road. And, we are certified in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, bringing another dimension of expertise to resolving cultural issues.

In you haven’t already signed up for our FREE webinar on October 25 (find the signup here), we’ll be discussing some tips and tricks for what you can do to resolve workplace conflict internally, and when we can help.  Or, reach out to Julia Melnicoe Insel or Jennifer Shaw with questions!

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