· News

How HR can prevent conflict at work

The most common form of conflict at work is staff being undermined or humiliated, according to CIPD research

People who experience conflict in the workplace have lower job satisfaction and are more likely to experience poorer mental and physical health, according to a study from the CIPD.

The CIPD found that a quarter (25%) of UK employees have experienced workplace conflict in the past year.

Jo Kansagra, head of people at Virgin Incentives and Virgin Experience Days, said that some conflict is natural and inevitable, but added that leaders should be able to spot when debates become toxic.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “Healthy debate comes with a passionate workforce; it often creates productive conversation and can spur on creative ideas. However, sometimes there’s a very thin line between passion and frustration, when one person’s thoughts and opinions do not align with another’s. 

“Most of the time, debate between colleagues is wholly positive, but the ability of the senior team members to spot tension and put an end to unproductive, heated conversations as soon as possible is extremely handy in these situations.”

Read more: Workplace conflict costs the UK £28.5 billion a year

The survey of over 5,000 UK workers found that 54% of respondents who reported conflict were satisfied with their job, compared with 77% of those who didn’t experience any conflict. 

Employees who experienced conflict were twice as likely to say they would leave their job in the next 12 months (33%) compared with those who did not experience conflict (16%).

Jake Young, senior adviser for employee experience, organisational development and learning and development fort the CIPD, told HR magazine that excessive workloads and poor leadership can lead to conflict at work.

He said: “Employees suffering from excessive workloads in high-stress environments are much more likely to experience low mood at work and are therefore more likely to behave in aggressive or uncivil ways. 

“This is particularly likely if they feel they lack the resources needed to meet such workplace demands, such as manager support and autonomy to work in ways which suit them.

“Another factor is leaders who lack effective management skills and are likely to contribute to workplace bullying, and failure to address conflict when it occurs.”

Read more: How to have positive conflict at work

Of those who experienced conflict, 28% said that their work had positively impacted their mental health, compared with 43% of those who didn’t experience conflict. 

A quarter (25%) of respondents reported that their work had a positive impact on their physical health, compared with 32% of those who didn’t experience any conflict.

Natasha Kearslake, director of HR consultancy Organic P&O Solutions, told HR magazine that it is best to take a preventative approach to conflict.

She said: “The best way of resolving conflict is avoiding it in the first place. That involves having fair and well-communicated expectations and people practices, on both informal and formal levels. With so many polarising narratives in today’s workplaces, managers can’t just rely on HR policies; leaders need to help their employees to navigate through any conflict.”

Employees’ most common response to conflict was to simply 'let it go' (47%), followed by having a discussion with a manager or HR (29%), informal discussions, either with someone outside work such as family or friends (21%) or with the other person involved (17%). The least common response (1%) was to take the case to an employment tribunal.

Kearslake added that employers should policies in place to prevent disputes boiling over: “If conflict does arise, you need to be able to fall back on clear conflict resolution policies. You should have plans for how issues are reported and addressed, with a strategy in place for how all parties will be treated inclusively, not just equitably.

“Most importantly, address inappropriate behaviour promptly. Look out for behaviours that cross the line into disrespectful conduct, and deal with it swiftly. Allowing discussions to become a gateway to personal attacks is a guaranteed route to creating a toxic culture.”

This survey report is based on the seventh annual UK Working Lives survey conducted in 2024. Total sample size was 5,496 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 8 January and 15 February 2024.