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HR Handled Right

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Let’s face it. Psychologists get depressed, doctors get sick, and human resource professionals squabble. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a master’s degree in conflict resolution, a better attitude than Pollyanna, and enough policies and procedures to fill a library. When people work together, they’re going to get on each other’s nerves.

However, unlike conflict most work groups, the potential ramifications of a dissenting human resource team are particularly worrisome. When human resource reps battle, managers and employees are quick to sense the dissension and run for the hills. I’ve had more than one manager, after hearing my “human resources is your friend” pitch in a harassment/discrimination prevention class, stay afterward to inform me that not only was human resources not his friend, but the department was so filled with politics and conflict that he didn’t know of a single employee who would go there wit h a problem. Imagine the potential legal liability in that company.

It’s In the Job Description

Human resources management may be the toughest job you’ll ever love, especially lately. In fact, when you consider the major sources of workplace conflict, it’s a wonder human resource professionals don’t fight with each other more often. For example, Nelson (1995) offered this list of high potential areas from which conflict issues commonly arise:

  • Unclear or inadequate administrative procedures
  • Inadequate people resources
  • Uncertain project schedules
  • Conflicting responsibilities
  • Conflicting goals and priorities.

Sound familiar? Most human resource professionals struggle with these on a regular basis. . Think of the challenge of trying to be both business partner and employee advocate. Reflect on the dichotomies in the many roles HR plays; in fact, HR has so many internal and external customers – the senior management team, CEOs, employees, shareholders, and other stakeholders – that it can be difficult to focus on the firm’s business goals and HR’s mission in fulfilling those goals. One area where HR often faces a no-win scenario is employment law and other legal entanglements.

In addition, the human resources field has changed dramatically during the 15 years from a casual department of reputed paper pushers and function planners to a high tech, multifaceted department that handles training, hiring, firing, employee relations, federal and state regulations, and the always-changing arena of employee benefits. At the same time companies are finally viewing the HR function as a vital business unit, they are simultaneously putting HR professionals at the top of the layoff hit list. Remaining HR professionals are asked to do more and more with less and less.

Excelling at Sideline Quarterback

So what do you do if you find yourself dealing with as much interpersonal conflict within your department as outside of it? When the conflict is between two of your coworkers, it can be difficult to know when to step in and when to mind your own business. The good news is that your background and training offers you a chance to help your coworkers channel some of their maladaptive conflict coping strategies into productive behavior just by the way you respond to it.

For example, triangulation is one of the most common and least effective behaviors unresolved interpersonal conflict often generates is triangulation, i.e., pulling a third party into a conflict by confiding in him or her rather than dealing directly with the partner-in-conflict. It can be incredibly seductive to have a coworker confide in you. It can seem like you’re being helpful by letting your coworker blow off steam with you instead of blowing up at his/her coworker.

However, lending a sympathetic ear can do more harm than good. First of all, the more people in a work group who know about an unresolved conflict between two people, the greater the adverse impact on the team. Unresolved conflict creates anxiety, and, as people get vicariously involved in the dispute, anxiety spreads through the workgroup faster than a virus. Second, most people would rather face a firing squad than confront a sticky situation head-on. Allowing a person to blow off steam can unintentionally encourage the person to avoid solving the problem because it temporarily “fixes” the emotional discomfort that often provides the necessary motivation to deal with the conflict head-on.

This doesn’t mean you have to turn a deaf ear to distressed colleagues. The next time a griping coworker complains about a fellow employee, follow these four guidelines:

Listen empathically and reflect the person’s feelings without taking sides or commenting on the content of what the person is saying. Do not give your opinion of the situation; you’re only hearing half of it anyway.

After the person has vented, focus on action. Ask your colleague what he or she wants to happen next, encourage the person to talk to the partner-in-conflict directly, and/or offer to role-play the conversation with him or her in advance. Do not let him/her get away with just “I feel better;” pin him or her down as to what needs to happen next.

If the person has griped to you more than once, set some limits. Let him or her know how frustrating it is for you to see the situation continue to be unresolved, and let him/her know that, while you’re available to help come up with a solution, you’re resigning as official sounding board.

Eight Rules For The Official Referee

When you manage other human resource reps, you may be called in to be the official referee. Whether you have two reps arguing over the training curriculum or one who wants a coffee fund and another doesn’t, your immediate response to conflict situations is essential. Here are eight strategies you can use when faced with reps who can’t resolve their own conflicts.

Acknowledge that a tough situation exists. Honesty is an essential ingredient in the resolution process. Acquaint yourself with what’s happening and be open about the problem.

Let individuals express their feelings. Many people are uncomfortable with the expression of strong feelings and try to move too quickly into logic. However, before any kind of problem solving can take place, emotions need to be expressed and acknowledged.

Assess the problem from both sides. Meet with employees separately at first and question them about the situation.

Determine the underlying need. Looking first for needs, rather than solutions, is a powerful tool for finding successful options. To discover needs, find out why people want the solutions they initially proposed and the advantages those solutions have for them.

Find common ground. People who work together have common goals, even if conflict temporarily camouflages them. Find areas the conflicting parties can agree on, no matter how small – such as the procedures to follow, their worst fears, or some small change they are both willing to make.

Implement solutions that satisfy needs. Generate multiple alternatives and agree on what actions will be taken. Be sure you get real agreement from everyone.

Schedule a two-week follow-up. Not only is a check-in a good idea to see how the action plan is working, it is a great way to sniff out any passive resistance to the conflict resolution process.

Determine what you’ll do if the conflict isn’t settled. If the conflict is a disruption in the department and it remains unresolved, you may need to provide some extra motivation to the parties involved. In some cases, the conflict may become a performance issue and may need to be a topic for coaching sessions, performance appraisals, or disciplinary actions.

Interpersonal conflict is one of the most challenging problems in an organization – and one that holds great potential for personal growth. The Chinese symbol for the word “conflict” is comprised of the characters for danger and opportunity, illustrating it’s dual potential to hurt relationships or, if handled bravely, to deepen them. In other words, when it comes to resolving interpersonal conflict, no pain, no gain.

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