Office Etiquette: How to Handle Employee Disputes in the Workplace

Differing perspectives can sometimes cause heated discussions in the workplace. Here are some office etiquette tips to help diffuse employee disputes.
November 04, 2016

As the tension of Election Day mounts across the nation, there's a good chance that some of that emotion may spill over into the work environment. This may be a good time to remind employees of basic office etiquette should disagreements arise. 

“Conflict is a fact of life, and it's going to happen, whether we are comfortable with it or not,” says Mike Staver, author of the audio book and seminar How to Defuse Anger and Calm People Down. “Add politics or religion to the conversation and the heat and emotion only intensifies. The more personal the topic, the more emotional intensity is present.”

Unique, individual perspectives may cause disagreements to occur, believes business consultant Debora McLaughlin, author of The Renegade Leader. “Values and past experiences drive our thoughts, feeling and actions. Today's political field is a battleground deeply rooted in core values. Words such as trust, integrity and character have moved to the forefront of foreign policy, homeland security and taxes. When core values are violated, these emotions increase.”

How Poor Office Etiquette May Affect Productivity

While some discussion is to be expected, there is a point where conversations can become detrimental to the workplace.

“Because of our differing perspectives, disagreements are a part of being human. We see the world through our own unique lens, and most [business owners] understand the value of different perspectives, which result in innovative ideas and customer centric products or services,” says McLaughlin. “When politics spill into the workplace, however, that can affect performance, alliances and engagement. Because employees personalize their values, hearing another employee endorsing another candidate who does not project the same values can raise defensiveness.”

Remind employees it is okay to have differing opinions, but it is not acceptable for differences to impact performance.

—Debora McLaughlin, author

There's a good reason why office etiquette discourages discussing politics, race and religion in the workplace, adds former clinical psychiatrist Mark Goulston, author of Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life. “People's deep emotional connections to all of these topics often trigger individuals to become upset and make it difficult for them to stay focused on what they need to get done."

4 Steps to Help Prevent and Diffuse Employee Disagreements

Business owners may want to take the lead when it comes to handling discord in the workplace and setting the example. These office etiquette tips can help minimize disagreements when they occur, and may help prevent them in the first place.

  1. Acknowledge the stressor. One way to diffuse trouble before it starts is to let employees know that you are aware of the controversy, whatever it is. For instance, in regards to the election, Goulston recommends telling employees: "This election has been one of the most disruptive and distracting campaigns in decades. As a result, it has caused many of us to get away from the important routines we follow at work. The sooner we get back to those the better. I'm not saying you don't have the right to passionately support your POV, whatever it is, but the more you compartmentalize it so that it doesn't negatively affect your work, the better."
  2. Encourage empathy. Developing empathy amongst employees can be an important step to encouraging polite and productive communication in the office. “Empathy is the ability to step into the shoes of others, be aware of their feelings and understand their needs, and in this presidential election, there seems to be no empathy taking place at all,” says DeLores Pressley, CEO of DeLores Pressley Worldwide. “Empathy requires listening, openness and understanding.”
  3. Make expectations clear. When discussions and disagreements negatively affect productivity, you may want to draw the line, notes McLaughlin. “Remind employees it is okay to have differing opinions, but it is not acceptable for differences to impact performance. When relating, encourage employees to eliminate the words “I” and “you” from their vocabulary. Instead, couch them to refer to the topic at hand, such as the report needs to be completed; the deadline is nearing.”
  4. Instruct employees to practice good office etiquette, and walk away from disagreements. “The most important thing to remind your employees of is that...there is no discussing an opposing opinion with individuals 'in their passion,'" says negotiations expert Eldonna Lewis-Fernandez, author of Think Like a Negotiator. "You won't get through to them and attempting to have a viable discussion in those circumstances will end up making you crazy. Encourage employees who find themselves in an altercation to leave emotion out by remaining calm, which may calm the other person. Changing the subject may also work. If those tactics don't work, then suggest they walk away."

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