How does a manager address co-workers involved in continuing feud?

October 26, 2021
When co-workers are involved in a constant feud, the whole workplace can suffer.
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Johnny C. Taylor Jr.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr. tackles your human resources questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR professional society and author of “Reset: A Leader’s Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval.”

The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.

Question: I am a sales manager over a 12-person team. One of my top salespeople and one of our key support staffers have been feuding over the last few weeks. The animosity between them creates tension in our office. Should I address them separately or together? Should I consider letting one go? – Aiden

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: When co-workers are feuding, the whole workplace suffers. As a manager, you are expected to be sensitive to the perspective of your workers and protect the interest of your business. But to get there, you want to start with listening with empathy as you gather the perspectives. So be firm, fair and flexible as you sort out this situation. Additionally, I strongly advise you to seek assistance from HR practitioners, as they are specially trained to help manage these situations.

It may be ideal to begin by scheduling separate meetings with your employees to better understand the dynamics and to get to the root cause of the feuding. In a one-on-one setting, your employees should be more open and honest about their issues.

After meeting with each individually, it may also warrant having a joint discussion to address any ongoing concerns. Be sure to set clear boundaries and expectations during the discussion and for their behavior afterward. Termination should never come as a surprise, so there are a few other considerations before letting either one or both go.

Alternatively, having your employees meet with each other may help facilitate a resolution sooner. Be prepared to mediate or consider including an outside mediator to help your two employees get on the same page, brainstorm possible solutions and reach a resolution on their next steps.

Ideally, you will have an effective meeting with both employees, and they will choose to respect each other in the workplace and move forward in a positive direction. However, if there are lingering concerns, issues, or policy violations, review your company’s policies and consult with HR on your recourse.

It is common for an employer to address workplace conduct in a policy, and violations may warrant using a performance improvement plan and/or progressive discipline. Performance improvement plans not only address performance-related issues but can address behavior-related concerns as well. Document and share your expectations with both employees and provide a reasonable amount of time to improve their behavior. Often, these plans will include consequences if there is no improvement, up to and including termination. Progressive discipline may also be used if there was a policy violation along with performance improvement plans such as a verbal warning, written warning, and then final warning before termination.

I’ll add this: It is imperative that you listen to each employee and understand individual perspective. Equally, you should also make sure they understand the collateral damage of their behavior. The two may be so wrapped up in the conflict that they may miss how it impacts other co-workers in the workplace and work performance. So, put the ball in their court by asking if there is a way to address their differences that doesn’t jeopardize the work.

Hopefully, level heads will prevail. Adding perspective can help all involved make better, more informed decisions and perhaps avoid the need for termination. Ultimately, the goal is to maintain a workplace where people can have positive and productive work experiences.

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Q: Our state recently raised its minimum wage rate. Now, all our workers are paid virtually the same amount as our most experienced and productive workers. Several of them are now resentful that we no longer have differentiation for those that merit it. This mandatory wage hike does not leave us much financial room to raise salaries.  What options do I have to reward work performance? – Chenise

Taylor: Acknowledgement of great work performance and worker commitment is vital for organizations to attract and retain the best workers. While wages are commonly used when rewarding work performance, there are many creative rewards and recognition programs that are free or low cost. 

Acknowledging your best workers by differentiated work responsibilities and titles requires virtually no cost. Offering them lead and supervisory roles put them in a position to exert greater positive influence in the workplace by training and guiding workers. Similarly, formal recognition from leadership can elevate the esteem of your best performers in the form of a handwritten note from a manager or even a letter of appreciation from the president/CEO with a copy to their HR file.

Other free ideas include:

• Flexible work hours

• Priority parking spaces

• Features in company promotions on social media or website

There are is a host of low-cost recognition and reward options available as well. Offering paid training and development can add value to a worker’s skill set and set them up to potentially earn more money in the future. It can also help the worker to be more effective at their current job which makes it a win for both sides. Providing them a paid membership in a trade association is another idea for investing in their professional development. In addition, some employers can award a small one-time bonus with much less financial impact than a merit increase.

Other low-cost recognition and reward options include:

• Full or part-time remote work

• Local event tickets – sports, concerts, or plays

• Additional time off

• Recognition/award ceremony with catered food and gift

• Gifts or gift cards without a formal ceremony

• Free or discounted fitness membership

Overall, people want to feel valued and appreciated.  Managers should regularly acknowledge their staff contributions. Cultivating a culture of employee value and appreciation should be an intentional company commitment regardless of budget constraints.

Hopefully, one or more of these options works for you.



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