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Public Workplace Conflict Resolution: Challenges for the HR Professional

By Joseph G. Jarret

America’s judicial system most commonly defines the term “conflict” to mean a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one. Whenever people work together and are required to be mutually supportive or dependent upon one another, conflict is bound to occur. Although conflict is a normal and natural part of any workplace, it becomes especially challenging in the public arena where conflicts have the habit of garnering media and public scrutiny. Such scrutiny can, depending upon how conflicts are resolved, discredit an entity.

Sources of Conflict

conflict3Although there exists myriad of factors that promote conflict in the workplace, members of the staff of Colorado University’s Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FASP) suggest that some of the primary causes of workplace conflict include:

  • Poor Communication: different communication styles can lead to misunderstandings between employees or between employee and manager. Lack of communication drives conflict ‘underground’.
  • Different Values: any workplace is made up of individuals who see the world differently. Conflict occurs when there is a lack of acceptance and understanding of these differences.
  • Differing Interests: conflict occurs when individual workers ‘fight’ for their personal goals and ignore organizational goals and organizational well-being.
  • Scarce Resources: too often, employees feel they have to compete for available resources in order to do their job. In a resource scarce environment, this causes conflicts despite awareness of how scarce resources may be.
  • Personality Clashes: all work environments are made up of differing personalities. Unless colleagues understand and accept each other’s approach to work and problem-solving, conflict will occur.
  • Poor Performance: when one or more individuals within a work unit are not performing – not working up to potential – and this is not addressed, conflict is inevitable.

Effects of Unresolved Conflict

When conflict occurs, public managers experience dips in morale and productivity and marked increases in absenteeism. According to HR professionals at the Newfoundland Public Service Commission, some of the results of unresolved conflict in the workplace include:

  • Employee stress, frustration, anxiety and loss of sleep
  • Strained relationships
  • High employee turnover
  • Loss of productivity
  • Increased client complaints
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Incidents of sabotage
  • Increased injuries and accidents
  • Increased worker’s compensation claims
  • Increased use of sick leave
  • Incidents of workplace violence

Conflict Resolution

conflict2Estimates from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) state that managers spend at least 25 percent of their time resolving workplace conflicts and resort to various methodologies to resolve them. Such methods include confronting the parties, to ignoring the problem, etc.

The savvy HR manager should seek to constructively resolve conflict by turning potentially destructive situations into opportunities for creativity, increased communication and enhanced performance. FSAP suggests that arriving at a positive resolution of conflict is always the ultimate goal. In resolving conflict, it is important to make sure the HR manager endeavors to:

  • Clearly articulate the causes of the conflict – openly acknowledging there will be differing perceptions of the problem(s).
  • Make a clear statement of why you want the conflict resolved and reasons to work on conflict.
  • Communicate how you want the conflict resolved.
  • Address the issues face-to-face. Notes, email correspondence, memos are not a productive way to resolve differences.
  • Stick to the issues. In trying to resolve conflict, it is tempting to resort to name calling or bringing up issues from the past. It is important to address specific behaviors and situations if change is to take place.
  • Take time out if necessary. In the resolution of a conflict, our emotions may interfere with arriving at a productive resolution. If this transpires, take a time-out and resume resolving the conflict at another designated time.

A Word about Mediation

In recent years, alternative dispute resolution in the form of mediation (most commonly defined as an attempt to bring about a peaceful settlement or compromise between disputants through the objective intervention of a neutral party) continues to grow in use in the public workplace. Most mediators will tell you that either collaboration or compromise are the most productive forms of addressing conflict because there is not a winner or loser but rather a working together for the best possible solution. As such, it is important that the HR manager remain cognizant of the purpose of mediation:

  • A workplace mediation session is in effect a business meeting about a business problem.
  • Mediation is not a personal counseling session.
  • Mediation is not a substitute for supervision.

When used properly, an effective mediation session can help employers to be sensitive to the relationships among their employees, encourage employees to speak with management and assist managers in becoming more proactive while serving as role models for effective approaches to conflict. By bringing a neutral, third party into the mix, both employee and manager come to the negotiation table equally empowered. It is advisable that when selecting a mediator, the HR manager insure that she or he has experience mediating public sector workplace disputes.


Unlike wine, which gets better with age, unresolved workplace conflict festers and worsens as time goes on. It is not uncommon for workplace conflict to precipitate into workplace violence. Effective conflict resolution requires the HR manager to deal with the matter as soon as it comes to light. By confronting conflict intelligently, compassionately and affirmatively, managers can go a long way towards insuring their employees are working in a safe, positive and productive environment.


Joseph G. Jarret is a public administrator, attorney and mediator who lectures on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the 2013 president of the East Tennessee Chapter of ASPA.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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