Don’t let employee conflicts fester

More than half of employees ages 18 to 29 see socialism in a positive light, but only about a quarter of those 50 and older do, according to a Gallup poll a few years ago. This is just one example of the varied — and sometimes conflicting — viewpoints that employees might bring up in the workplace.

Dealing with these differences effectively is important. Personal conflicts can interfere with work and even become nationwide political stories via a simple tweet or post.

Managers can help companies avoid a big headache by learning in advance how to address intergroup conflict.

Option one: Avoidance

Seeking to keep differences in beliefs outside of the workplace — a form of avoidance — is the most common tactic that companies use. Opinions, specifically political ones, don't need to be brought up with colleagues.

Human resource policies can bar employees from behaving in certain ways, such as sporting Confederate flags or other political attire. Then, if employees break a rule, managers only need to alert HR.

But even so, millennials tend to be more expressive than their older colleagues, and generational differences are becoming more of a factor in workplace conflict.

"The older workforce was trained to separate their 'personal' personality, attire and relationships from the 'professional' as soon as they walked in that office door. But the younger workforce feels like you're hiring the whole person, including their opinions," says Cara Silletto, a consultant on employee retention. "I encourage people to be themselves at work ... just know that people are watching you."

Option two: Indirectly addressing

But what about employees from cultural backgrounds that are historically at odds with each other?

Researcher Thomas Pettigrew compiled a meta-analysis of 515 studies focusing on how groups with cultural, political, gender and age differences work together in a cohesive way. He concluded that emotional connection was the key.

Four things have to be in place to achieve this connection: The people must be on an equal level in the hierarchy; they must be working toward a common goal; the effort they are undertaking must be cooperative, rather than competitive; and there must be institutional support, especially when something goes awry.

Many companies undertake efforts that meet these conditions in the form of time off for employees to do volunteer work as a group, team-building events like escape rooms, and reverse-mentoring programs.

Employees participating in these types of programs are able to put aside their differences, consequently building a mutual understanding for one another.

Option three: Directly addressing

Directly addressing differences in the workplace has become a more mainstream approach to solving intergroup conflict lately.

Joseph Grenny, the author of "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High," recommends getting everyone together and giving each person a chance to speak without interruption as the others take notes. Grenny then uses a whiteboard to categorize the problems that are expressed and presses all parties involved to brainstorm solutions. As Grenny would put it, "the employees aren't exactly lunch buddies now, but the process works."

There are many companies that find the direct approach useful, though heated emotional conflicts often require specialized facilitators to intervene.

Differences of opinions will always exist. But they don't have to go beyond the cubicle and lead to a public relations firestorm. How a company acts when conflicts occur can keep them from escalating.

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