Human Resources and Workplace Conflict

The following is an interview with Alan Collins, Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and former Vice President of Human Resources for PepsiCo.

If you had to identify two or three of the top reasons for workplace conflict, what would they be?

In my experience, most major workplace conflicts fall into four categories.  They are clashes over expectations, roles, resources and style.

Conflicts over expectations happen when the goals or objectives of the two parties work against each other.  For instance, when two people are working together in a customer service environment, one might have been told that fast response time is the most important goal with customers. The other person might have been told that taking time to do research and giving a thoughtful response first before responding is critical.  Unfortunately, these two approaches are different…may be difficult to reconcile…and can create conflict between two otherwise decent, well-meaning people.

An example of conflict over roles is when an individual does a project outside their normal role or job function.  In doing this, if this causes him or her to step into someone else’s “territory,” then “turf battles” and power struggles can occur. The same thing can happen in reverse – if someone else is doing a project in an area you consider to be within your area of responsibility.

In today’s competitive environment, disagreements over resources can happen quite easily.  We’re all being asked to do more with less.  And to do our jobs successfully, we all need access to certain resources that are scarce (e.g. time, money, office supplies, people, meeting rooms, office space, etc.).  As a result, conflict can occur when more than one person or a group needs access to a particular scarce or limited resource that’s in high demand by others.

Finally, conflicts can occur over diverse personal styles. Everyone works differently, according to his or her individual preferences and personality. For instance, I enjoy the thrill of getting things done at the last minute.  While others I’ve worked with require the structure of strict timelines, plans and deadlines in order to perform.  Often, these working styles can clash and create conflict.

Obviously, there are other types of conflicts, but most of the major ones I’ve encountered tend to fall into these categories.

What ways can HR professionals minimize workplace conflict?

HR should act as a coach, not a referee.

This means the one thing that HR should NOT do is get in the middle between two warring parties. Or take sides. It’s important that HR encourage employees to work things out on their own.

If HR’s help is specifically solicited to “settle” a conflict, it’s important that HR redirect that person back to the person they’re in conflict with.  And, in addition, provide some “coaching advice” on how to approach the other party in a constructive manner.

The proactive HR professional may also offer or sponsor organization-wide training on conflict resolution.  Since organization disagreements are inevitable, it makes good business sense to train employees and management on how to effectively deal with them in advance. This type of investment of will reap immediate dividends. Employees will spend less time focusing on one another and more time focusing on their work, their customers and delivering value.

As part of this training, HR can ensure that specific tools are provided to help in managing conflict. Using tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or Firo-B can help individuals better understand their own personal approach in conflict situations and broaden the strategies they can use to help resolve them.

See the rest of Alan’s interview in our blog next week!

Alan Collins

About the Author: Alan Collins was Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.   He is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of the two HR best sellers, UNWRITTEN HR RULES and BEST KEPT HR SECRETS.  More of his articles and insights can be accessed at

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