12.5 How to Manage Work Conflicts

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand potential challenges you may face in the workplace.
  2. Get strategies for how to handle problems and when to use formal channels, such as human resources (HR).
  3. Learn how to avoid burnout and maintain work and life balance.

Day-to-Day Workplace Conflict Is Often about Managing Relationships

When you work side by side with people, many different people and personalities are interacting, so conflicts inevitably arise:

  • A talkative colleague interrupts you when you are trying to work.
  • A teammate on a project isn’t pulling his or her own weight.
  • A competitive colleague takes credit for your ideas.
  • A person from whom you need information is unresponsive.

These examples present challenges in day-to-day relationships. Relationship management is a key skill to mitigate common workplace conflicts. Your mentors, especially your shepherd, can help you by forewarning you of colleagues who might be problematic and advising you how others have learned to work with those people. You might simply need to set boundaries and establish a working relationship for the future.

If a colleague interrupts your work, don’t continue the conversation. If you engage her in conversation, she might think you welcome her interruptions. Let her know you have a deadline and ask if you can come by at a set time. Make sure you schedule a time that is specific and limited. She will likely get the message—though it may take a few times—and stop interrupting you. You have set a boundary and a standard for how you wish to be treated.

If a colleague isn’t pulling his own weight, your strategy will depend on his seniority to you (if you are peers, it’s less complicated than if he’s senior), your working history, and whether you expect to be working together in the future. React more carefully if your lazy colleague is senior, in case he has more influence with your boss. If your working history has been good in the past, you might decide to give your colleague the benefit of the doubt or reach out and candidly offer your help. If you expect to be working together on an ongoing basis, it is more important that you first establish a good working relationship. Get help from your mentor on how to deal with the situation in a way that reflects the culture of the organization as well as the relationship and power dynamics.

If a competitive colleague takes credit for your idea, make sure you document your ideas and speak up so that she is unable to do this. She might not realize it’s your idea and is merely repeating what she heard. She might do this intentionally, but once you stand up for yourself, she’ll move on to others. This underscores how important it is to have regular updates with your boss where you can let him or her know firsthand what you are contributing.

If a colleague is unresponsive, recognize that there will be many situations where you have to influence people to help you, even when it is someone over whom you have no direct authority. This is a great skill to learn. The causes as to why someone may be unresponsive differ widely, but you can help the situation by making clear requests with specific deadlines. People are busy, and if you don’t get what you need, rather than assume someone is deliberately being unhelpful, be clear and help people help you.

These are just some examples of workplace conflicts, but others will occur because your work environment combines many different personalities, roles, and cultures. Good communication and relationship-management skills will help you tremendously. If you have mentors who can provide a sounding board, as well as the cultural and historical context for people’s behaviors, that will help tailor your good foundational skills to your current environment.

Workplace Issues Sometimes Are Complex and Require Assistance from HR

It is always a good idea to work with your mentors to help manage workplace conflict. Depending on the seriousness of the issue, you may also want to call on HR, which includes people specifically trained in employee relations, employment law, and other areas helpful to mediate workplace conflict.

In the “Learn How Your Employer Runs Its Business” section of this chapter, we recommended you read the company policy manual within your first ninety days. Often, you are required to sign confirmation you have read and are familiar with the policies. It’s important to keep the manual handy so that you know how to manage some of the following uncertainties or conflicts beyond daily relationship struggles:

  • Can I check my personal e-mail and online sites during work hours?
  • Can I pursue a job on the side?
  • Can I date a colleague?
  • Can I take or e-mail my files with me if I want to work from home.?
  • Is it harassment or discrimination when I’m offended by something a colleague said or did?

Technology policies evolve quickly because of the increasing importance of social media. By the time this book is published, standards likely will have changed. Currently, some employers monitor all employee e-mails sent on office equipment, whether from a personal e-mail account or not. Some employers block access to sites like Facebook or LinkedIn. Be careful if you have a personal blog. Your employer may still consider that what you say reflects on them. You want to check what is allowed and customary at your own workplace.

Generation Y (born 1980–1995, so they are today’s entry-level workers) is an entrepreneurial generation. It is not unheard of to find people with a side business, perhaps a website or a consulting business. This could be a violation of company policy, so even if you do the extra work on your own time and don’t think it interferes with your work, you want to make sure it is not a violation. A conflict of interest might occur, and working another job could be grounds for dismissal.

Similar to a job on the side, office dating may be explicitly covered in company policy. Even if it isn’t, weigh the decision carefully to date a colleague. If the relationship doesn’t work out, you still have to see this person. In addition, even if you and the colleague you are dating are both fine with the decision to date, other colleagues may react differently. When you are early in your career, you have a short track record, so your reputation is built with what you do every day. Weigh possible adverse perceptions carefully.

Don’t assume you can just e-mail or take your work files out of your office. If you are dealing with customer data or information that must be kept confidential, taking information offsite may be against company policy. Your home office equipment may not meet security requirements. You might have to log into a specific server to access your work files so that security is maintained. Again, don’t just assume. Check your employer policy.

If you think a colleague is harassing or discriminating against you, this is a good example of when you might want to speak with HR. When you bring issues to HR, they need to start an official investigation, so make sure before you do this that there really is a problem and not a misunderstanding that you can handle on your own. Maybe the boorish colleague does not mean to discriminate, but just has terrible judgment or poor taste. Your mentors can help you assess the situation based on exactly what happened, what they know of the colleague in question, and any other nuances specific to your employment situation. You should never tolerate harassment or discrimination, but use good judgment on the best course to pursue.

Workplace conflict can be tricky and varies widely, so it’s impossible to cover every scenario or make very specific recommendations. Some good rules of thumb include the following:

  • Focus on maintaining good relationships with open communication and clear boundaries.
  • Know your company policy, and check to see if answers to your questions are readily available.
  • Use your mentors as a sounding board and information source for nuances and historical examples you can’t readily research.
  • Use HR for support. It is always helpful to have a friend in HR who can share information and counsel outside of official meetings.

Key Takeaways

  • Many workplace conflicts can be minimized with good relationship management—open communication and clear boundaries.
  • Do not assume that you can do personal work on office equipment or take work home on your personal equipment. Check company policy on personal e-mail and social media policy, confidentiality, and any other issues about which you have questions.
  • Use your mentors for advice and information.
  • Use HR as a resource if a serious office situation occurs, such as harassment or discrimination.


  1. How good are your relationship skills? Many of the scenarios listed can happen in school or another nonwork environment. Think about where you have had difficult relationships in the past, and think of helpful strategies you used. Think about areas you may need to develop, and plan how you might work on these before you start your job.
  2. Try to find a company policy manual for the industry or type of company in which you are interested. What are the policies regarding personal e-mail and social media, working a side job, and so forth? Talk to people in the jobs you are targeting to find out what is customary.