You know it, you’ luv it, you can’t get enough of it – conflict. And lately, there is a plethora of it.

Ok…now that I’ve gotten to use the word ‘plethora’ (so satisfying for a word nerd like me) – let’s dig in:

Ever since the presidential election, I along with many HR Execs, have seen a rise in employee confrontations, allegations, and violence. 

Regardless of your political leanings, it is clear to those of us in HR that whatever social contract we had with employees, and they had with each other around professional conversation and confrontation, well the contract has drastically changed. Many people are on edge personal beliefs once thought off limits in break room conversations, are now daily occurrences.

No longer can it be assumed employees will hold political or controversial subjects to after hours; they are routinely discussing them in the workplace.  In person, chat rooms, texting, email, video conferencing, and in social media.

Games such as Cards Against Humanity are played at lunch onsite, breaking national stories of violence and inappropriate behavior heard on the radio during the commute or seen online, ignite conversations on race, police, gun control, and sexual harassment face to face across teams.  Combine this with startups who have beer taps next to the coffee machines, and the workplace moves from a common denominator of verbal and actionable respect, refraining on non work controversial subjects – to a breeding ground of confrontation….creating a culture of contentiousness.

Never before have so many employees of all races, beliefs, political and policy alliances, and additional diversity points, craved to be heard…at work. Demanded to be engaged on a personal level around their real (or perceived) rights and opinions. 

In HR we do not take political sides and discourage these topics. Next to religion, there is few other issues than politics that will create conflict faster. And yet….and yet …our people want to discuss them. A lot. And they are many times polarized.  Or they are trying to understand each other, or misunderstand. 

These people are spending 4, 8, 12 hours a day in the workplace with a constant social media and television feed of unprecedented conflict based input and expected to bottle all thoughts and leave them at home.  Is it practical to expect? How does an HR representative navigate these mine fields of increased verbal and physical erupting conflicts?

Holistically hire/promote leaders and train your managers. Let me say it again…train…your…managers.

Leaders set the tone, and as HR cannot be in every office at every table, your leaders must be educated, capable, empowered, AND INCLINDED  to stop escalations in their tracks, and more importantly redirect the energy. 

When presented with 2 or more employees of differing personal opinion in the workplace, your managers must not fear conflict.  They must be COMFORTABLE WITH BEING UNCOMFORTABLE.

How many of your managers are?

How many do you have complete faith in that when differing opinions evolve quickly into yelling, name calling, or shoving matches – they could step in with calm confidence and navigate it back into the professional environment of respect? Move that energy quickly into the work an harmony? Or better yet – prevent it all together?

I am guessing not many.

And yet, your bottom line depends on it. 

These escalations quickly become harassment, hostile work environment, discrimination, or assault claims. All of which cost precious time, resources, and money to facilitate correctly, and can evolve into legal costs. And obviously are extremely destructive to everyone involved. Not to mention, impact the reputation and branding of your company that you have worked so hard to craft and preserve. One unmanaged case gone too far too fast – can undo your culture and reputation in minutes.

So invest in your manager’s ability to comfortably navigate conflict.

They are employees too, and most are hired for their departmental expertise and not their behavioral management skills. Many are not naturally inclined with such a skill set either. Some are afraid. Most avoid it …and expect HR to make it go away. But usually after the proverbial ship has not only sailed, but hit an iceberg and is sinking to the sound of a warbling orchestra.

Ensure you hire managers with many reports inclined or experienced in such matters.  

Make sure they are comfortable leading their teams through small and large conflicts. Give them specific talk tracks for situations, rehearse with them if needed, show them how to recognize escalations building, and how to tune into to external/internal factors of employees that can contribute to agitation, also the proper and proactive use of an EAP benefit offering. 

Show them or have a coach come in to show case conflict resolution negotiating/facilitating skills, active listening and validation techniques, and emotional soft skills, and firm boundary setting. But most of all – make sure they know this is their job. They are usually onsite, nearest the conflict, first to hear of it or be there. Role play to evaluate their abilities and make sure they can move into a power struggle and come out a peace maker. Or a clear work behavior boundary setter; a leader to be respected in the best sense of the word. Your staff will be more comfortable that things won’t get out of hand, and if they make their skills evident, and apply them fairly – anyone with a penchant for drama will think twice before stirring the pot.

We are in a time of unprecedented levels of communication stimulus, it is new territory for your employees and your managers.

If you see this area escalating, reflect on the pattern of issues and direct your training to the source (every environment and industry has nuances of areas of increased conflict based on work performed, work environment, geographic location, proximity of workers, hierarchies and more. Know yours.). 

A harmonious, safe, and relaxed work environment creates a foundation for creativity, innovation, productivity, and job satisfaction to bloom  But these areas cannot flourish in the workplace if your managers don’t know how to mitigate conflict (or avoid it) in order to inspire safety and comfort for all; to be real leaders and manage their people not just for the better – but in the trenches of the worst.  

Help your managers be prepared for the worst – so your employees can work in the best environment.