Workplace harassment is a growing problem. Human resource professionals are often on the front-line of these conflicts and need strong skills to resolve and prevent harassment at work.

Harassment doesn’t always involve sex or race. During many of our union organizing campaign engagements we deal with coworker harassment (i.e. union supporters pressuring and sometimes threatening employees who don’t want a union). These situations can often lead to physical confrontations and vandalism.

No matter what the source of workplace harassment, there are some fundamental steps that can help managers predict and stop the behavior before it spirals out of control. Here are 3 tips I have for managing conflicts in the workplace:

1. Make sure first level leaders are trained to notice behavior changes at work. There are early warning signs of workplace conflict if you are paying attention. Performance may dip. Friends may stop talking. A good supervisor will notice this behavior change and get the situation on the table before it spirals out of control. Bad supervisors don’t notice anything is going on until it is too late.

2. Get ahead of the situation early. At the first sign that a conflict might escalate it is very important to let employees know the standards of conduct and the steps the company will take to prevent a conflict. Start with the involved employees, but often it is important to remind the rest of the company of the conduct expected (after all, immediate coworkers are the ones most likely to see - and hopefully stop - a conflict from going out of control). Also, don’t fall into the the “victim, perpetrator, savior” triangle. When two employees have a conflict it is usually best to help them facilitate their own solution to the problem instead of a manager intervening in favor of one employee or the other. All manager intervention does is further escalate the conflict, sending the new “victim” in search of a higher level manager to settle the score.

3. Be firm but fair. If an incident occurs let the parties know that you will fully and fairly investigate both sides of the story. These situations are often fraught with landmines for the company and you are often damned if you do, damned if you don’t. In union campaign situations you add the potential of getting charged by the union or losing a union election on top of the employment-related issues. If the situation involves a domestic dispute, drug, alcohol or other emotional issue be sure to refer the involved employee to your EAP program or other community resource. But if action is warranted act decisively. There should be no tolerance for threats, intimidation or harassment in the workplace - it is just too dangerous (not to mention the negative impact on the business).

Managing workplace conflict is an important skill for all Human Resource professionals. Look for opportunities to practice facilitating resolution to these conflicts in lower-intensity situations to build your skills. The good news is that if you do a good job building these skills you will probably prevent most conflicts from escalating into high-intensity ones.

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