Resolving conflict in the workplace – HR survey results

A few weeks back I asked the Linked In HR community for some help in preparing for a lecture I’m giving at the end of November 2016 to Business Administration students at the University of Bath.  The lecture is on conflict in the workplace and given the academic environment I thought it would be appropriate to add some original research data to the presentation.  So I put together a simple 5 question multiple choice survey and asked the HR Professionals on Linked In to fill in the survey.  There was a great response – 73 surveys completed which gives me some robust albeit unscientific data to present to the students, so many thanks if you were one of those who contributed.  Several people asked me if I could share the data and I’m happy to oblige…

The first question related to how respondents perceive dealing with employee conflict in relation to their role.  The majority see it as a key part of their role, and indeed one which adds value to the business.  This is a hearteningly positive response to a subject which can be seen as one of the less pleasant aspects of the job.  It was also interesting to note that only 3 respondents didn’t think it was part of their role.  I’d suggest that even when you have specialist employee relations people or competent line managers, HR managers still have a key role to play in the conflict management process.

The second question looked at the consequences of workplace conflict.  The most negative impact of conflict for the respondents is that it is distressing for the employees (45%) and it distracts from business objectives (34%).   I was interested to see that the ‘distraction from business objectives’ was so high.  One might assume that HR focuses on the people impact of conflict, but it is good to see that many acknowledge how damaging relationship conflicts can be for the wider business through diverting time, effort and resources away from driving the business forward.

The third question considers how conflict is handled in the respondents own organisations.  Over 50% replied that they try to mediate themselves for  low level issues and rarely call on experienced mediators.  Whilst this is not too encouraging for us experienced mediators (!) it definitely reflects the feedback I get when talking to HR teams.  And it makes a lot of sense.  Many of the issues that arise are relatively low level and HR should have the skills to ‘nip it in the bud’.  This was the key driver for writing my book ‘DIY Mediation. The Conflict Resolution Toolkit for HR’.  I was somewhat surprised to see that 16% rarely have conflict situations requiring formal or informal processes.  These must be very happy places to work!  Ideally employees should be resolving issues themselves, having difficult conversations where necessary to resolve their differences.  Hopefully that is what is happening in these workplaces, and that it is not simply conflict being avoided.

The fourth question related to what skills HR need to help employees resolve low level conflict informally.  I was  aiming to get an understanding of how HR professionals see informal resolution.  I was pleased to see that 55% believe good communication skills and a process are the most important – this would certainly be my opinion.  11% thought accredited mediation training was the most necessary.  Whilst I think full mediation training is most valuable I think it is rather ‘over the top’ for most HR professionals.  It was interesting to note that even when I asked about the skills needed for informal resolution, nearly 30% thought investigation and problem solving skills were the most important.  I would agree if we were looking for the skills needed for formal resolution, but to address situations informally I think the emphasis is on communication and helping the employees solve it themselves.

The final question looked at the importance respondents place on the issue of workplace conflict for organisations.  Two thirds of people believe it is ‘an important issue that impacts operational performance of the company’.  This was positive as often employee conflict is not considered as important.  It would be difficult to justify it as an issue of strategic significance as organisations have survived despite conflict being ever present.  Yet it does have a significant impact on the people and the operational performance – the CBI has quoted a figure of £33bn cost to UK business each year caused by conflict.  Interesting to note is that over 30% of respondents consider conflict to be a minor, or at least, not a major issue.

So what are my overall conclusions?  I think the survey results are encouraging.  Most HR professionals recognise the significance of workplace conflict as an issue and are aware of the critical role they play in helping to resolve it.  Yet there is still more to be done to stress the importance of conflict resolution and also help upskill the HR profession to tackle it effectively.