CARE TALK: Dealing With Conflict in the Workplace

CARE TALK is a monthly advice column in Aurora Magazine where a registered psychologist offers answers to common questions around mental health and counselling.

Q: I am the manager of a very difficult staff member. Although he is excellent in the quality of his work, his interpersonal skills create significant problems in the workplace. This team member creates conflict with other staff, to the point where I have had people in tears in my office. This behaviour has gone on for a long time, before my time as his manager and I know I need to address it. I have been avoiding this conversation because I know he won’t take it well. How do I go about this the right way?

A: You have taken the first important step of identifying that this employee’s behaviour needs to be addressed. Performance in the workplace is more than just meeting targets and achieving service and task-related goals. The negative behaviour of one person in a team may have wider implications for other team members if this were to continue.

My first piece of advice for any concerning behaviour, even if it is minor, is “if you see something, say something”. All behaviour has meaning, even if the behaviour is not expressed in a socially appropriate way. This is why it is valuable to initially approach any issue with care and concern. We do not know if your difficult employee has personal, physical or mental health issues that impact on how he communicates in the workplace so it is useful to make this type of assumption first. Here are some specific strategies to address your concerns with this employee:

• Schedule an informal catch up in a private setting – whether that be through usual supervision or an invite to a meeting with you. When I say informal, I recommend you do not take copious notes in front of your employee the first time you raise your concerns. Note your conversation later.

• Jot down some points to discuss with your employee. Only note behaviours you have noticed about him – whether you have directly observed them or reported to you by employees. You do not need to label or judge the behaviours with emotion words such as “depressed”, “sad” or “angry”.

• During the first meeting, you might introduce your concerns by saying something like “I have noticed over the past few months/weeks, you have raised your voice and stood over (another staff member’s name). This has made me worried so I thought I’d check in with you. Are you ok?”. Allow the employee to provide you with their opinion regarding your concerns.

• If the employee admits that he is experiencing significant distress or has a mental illness, you can then make allowances for this and come up with a plan to support this employee. Employers are obligated to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace if they can.

• If the employee denies that he has a problem, you may still initially offer support as you would still be concerned about how he communicates at work and book another meeting for a week’s time. Schedule a follow-up meeting regardless of the outcome of this first meeting.

• If your workplace has an Employee Assistance Program, provide the brochure and contact details in case they would like to talk to someone outside of the workplace.

• If the employee continues to behave in a negative manner and also continues to deny any personal or work-related stress, then unfortunately you need to consider formal performance management.

Supporting this difficult employee is an indirect way of supporting all employees and ensuring a safe workplace for everyone. If you need further advice, contact your HR manager. I also highly recommend a publication by the Australian Human Rights Commission titled Workers With Mental Illness: A Practical Guide For Managers.

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Tanya Russell

Tanya Russell is CatholicCare's Counselling Team Leader and a registered psychologist.

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