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How to Stop the SOS Signals from Managers when Conflicts Arise

Oct 16, 2017
HR Acuity


You have a meeting with the CEO in 20 minutes. After that, you’ll be absorbed in labor negotiations with union officials. It’s going to be a loooong afternoon. Then your phone rings. It’s George, the marketing director. You’re tempted to let his call go to voicemail, but you don’t. You just hope he has the never-ending conflict between his two rivaling salespeople settled so he’ll stop calling you for help!

As the old saying goes: Whenever two or more people are in a room, there’s always the possibility of conflict. Managers and employees can be quick to call HR at the hint of trouble. Whether workers are squabbling over a new policy, two managers are bumping heads over work style differences or a supervisor and a subordinate are constantly arguing, everyone involved in a conflict has some responsibility in resolving it. And you can see that they do by holding all the parties accountable.


Managers and employees don’t always understand your role. Managers think HR, as the human capital and employment compliance specialist, is the organization’s peacekeeper. Employees often see you as their advocate when they have complaints, rather than a resource for the information, tools and training they need to perform their jobs.

Sometimes HR managers don’t make their roles clear, adding to the confusion. If you’re getting calls from managers expecting you to end their battles with a subordinate or employees are calling you to defend them in a dispute, they need to know their responsibility in the resolution and at what point you’ll intervene. Without resolution, workplace conflicts fester. Disagreements that persist impede productivity and deflate morale over time.


Managers are responsible for resolving conflicts with their employees … or at least they should be. Organizations select workers for the managerial track for many reasons. Some are elected because they’re high performers. Others are subjectively selected because they’re liked. But all should be promoted because they get along extremely well with others and show they’re skilled at defusing tension.

Not everyone who becomes a manager should be one. Putting people in charge of others without the right people skills does their subordinates a disservice. Those skills should include the ability resolve workplace conflicts fairly, quickly and painlessly.

Given the number of other tasks managers must handle — assigning projects, assessing performance, enforcing workplace policies and overseeing production or services — they may not feel that settling disputes is worth their time. It’s not surprising, then, that managers want to turn over the task to HR.


Counseling managers on how to handle conflicts themselves can help minimize how often they reach out to HR. First, ask managers if they have the know-how, and if so, find out why they’re not using it. A first step in the process is being clear with managers that, as company leaders, they’re expected to handle conflicts that originate in their departments and the circumstances under which you’re required to intervene.

It’s ideal to counsel managers before they’re faced with a conflict. They’ll be less likely to ask for your help if they have the training to resolve disputes beforehand. Also, when managers are trained, they can instruct their staff in settling disagreements on their own, until it’s necessary for their managers and you to get involved.

Start the counseling session as soon as possible to prevent the conflict from escalating. Return marketing director George’s call and set up the session. Depending on the severity of the conflict and George’s comfort in handling it, you might need to set up more than one session. There’s no one counseling style to follow; use the one you’re trained in or that you feel has produced the most successful outcomes.

In the session, get the name or names of the employees involved and as many of the conflict details as possible. Guide the manager through resolution techniques. Document all conversations with the manager. Documentation is crucial because it will reveal whether follow-up sessions with the manager are necessary. Even more critically, it’s a record of what occurred in the sessions in case an employee disputes the manager’s assessment of the conflict and impedes the resolution.

HR Acuity