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Dealing with conflict in the workplace

Stress at work

No one wants to clash with someone at work, it just puts a downer on your day. Besides, you spend more time with your workmates than your family, you want to socialise with them on a Friday night, not bitch about them over afternoon coffee. But sadly not all colleagues in retail jobs will get along, and conflict can arise.





In a 2010 survey by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), they found that one in 10 employees had experienced bullying and harassment at work. So how do you deal with conflict before it gets too much to handle?

Conflict in the workplace

Working in retail can be busy enough without conflict adding to your day. Not only that, but nobody wants to feel victimised or bullied at work.

A working day can be tiring enough, but if employees work extra hours it makes them tired and just a little bit grouchy, creating the perfect scenario for conflict.

But just because it can happen, doesn’t mean it should. Cary Cooper, psychologist at Lancaster University, believes the first step is recognising the conflict: “It could start with aggressive behaviour in a meeting, colleagues not socialising or employees gossiping.”

Acas believes that conflict at work can take many forms. It can be an individual with a grievance, a problem between an employee and a manager or conflict between two co-workers. This isn't good the for the company, conflict not only upset people, but also get in the way of work, making a business less productive.

Addressing the issue

There are many reasons why conflict may arise in the workplace, from office romances gone wrong, misunderstandings, jealously, a dislike of someone and excessive workload, we've all seen them happen at work.

But where do you start if you feel there is conflict? Communication is the most important aspect at this stage. If a boss or colleague is unaware of your unhappiness, then simply voice your concerns, and do it before it escalates. But always address it at an appropriate time, don’t bring it up during a stress-filled all night meeting, it won’t help your cause.

“Address your boss or colleague when they're not in a state of stress. This is important as there can be a lot of stress in the workplace. If they’re not in the right frame of mind, you may not get the reaction you were expecting,” says Cooper.

Pick a quiet time when you and your colleague aren’t dealing with deadlines or in back-to-back meetings. Use a calm tone of voice and ask to talk to them in private. Whatever you do, don't address your issues in front of your other colleagues, it's unprofessional, and that's unlikely to improve the situation.

Cooper also advises that you give specific examples of when conflict has arisen. “This way we are pinpointing on a specific time which made us feel victimised or bullied, rather than just generalising.”

Acas suggests that you try to bring up a conflict before it gets out of hand. It could be a simple misunderstanding, and the quicker it's resolved, the better.

But what if the conflict persists?

If talking to your colleague or boss about the problem doesn’t have the outcome you were hoping for, you need to seek advice and support from a higher level, don’t ignore the issue. Companies will usually have systems in place to deal with conflicts in the workplace and you shouldn't feel victimised at work. 

There are several options available to you if you feel like nothing is working. You can speak to someone in an HR role within your company, a union representative or you get can advice from outside sources such as the Acas helpline.

Importantly, if you’re making a formal complaint you may need evidence, so keep a record of events where you think you were a victim of conflict – including dates, times and descriptions of what happened. Importantly, keep copies of anything else you may think is relevant – such as emails, notes or letters. If it gets as far as a hearing, then you'll need these as evidence.

If the conflict ends amicably, it shouldn’t just be forgotten and swept under the carpet; otherwise, the same problems may flare up again. Time and effort needs to go into repairing this relationship to keep it free of conflict. “You need to invest in that relationship again. Be co-operative, friendly and social because that element of your relationship has disappeared, and you need to get it back again,” says Cooper.

Case study

Jenny had a sales assistant job in a shoe shop and felt the assistant manager was picking on her. “For some reason, she just didn’t like me. It made it a misery to have to go to work every day when I knew she would get me to do the most menial tasks.” Jenny finally plucked up the courage to talk to the manager about what was happening.

Thankfully, he handled it professionally and helped them to work through their problems. “I found out that the assistant manager was bringing in her problems from home and taking them out on me and the rest of the staff. After we talked it through, things got much better.”

Sorting it out

Most importantly, a conflict at work, whatever form it takes, shouldn’t be ignored. Unresolved conflict at work can backfire professionally and personally, so sort it out before it goes too far and you find yourself hiding under the desk to avoid it all.

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