Managing Conflict Between Co-Workers

By:  Terra Shastri, Ontario Veterinary Medical Association

“Can you believe Kelly did that? I mean – who does she think she is, the queen of this clinic?” For over a year, Kelly and Chris have not been getting along but now it’s growing out of control. The team is divided, as some team members are feeling uncomfortable with the backstabbing comments. Some staff are trying hard not to pick sides, while others are starting to participate in the conversations that occasionally get interrupted by a client walking through the clinic door. The practice owner was hoping Kelly and Chris’ inability to get along would disappear, but he is slowly realizing that it is getting worse. The final straw was when he went to greet a client in the exam room and she said “is your staff okay? Chris seemed really upset out front, but I didn’t want to say anything to her.” Ignorance is bliss when it comes to some things, but not when you are trying to manage two team members who genuinely do not get along. The animosity created between two people can turn a clinic into a cancer ward. Co-workers do not have to be best friends, but they need to be civil and able to work together – especially when dealing with clients and patients. Not only can interpersonal conflict lead to wasted employee time, loss of productivity, strained relationships, grievances and litigation, but interpersonal conflict can also cause absenteeism or employee turnover while having a negative impact on the overall client experience. As challenging as it might be, it is in everyone’s best interest to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. If the conflict is among non DVM or non management staff, it might be easy to dismiss the situation, or discipline the employees if it has affected their performance. In some cases, you may even let one or both go to avoid the drama. However, when the feud is between professional or management staff, the situation becomes more complicated, and a mediator may offer the best solution if open discussions with those involved are unsuccessful.

Six possible outcomes of resolving conflict among co-workers include:

1. Both parties work out their differences, rise above, and move on.
2. Both parties agree to disagree, but get past it and move on.
3. Both parties say they’ve moved on, but one or both secretly harbor continued ill will. Negativity lurks and performance soon begins to dip. At the same time, other staff may be pulled into the negativity while one team member continues to speak harshly about the other.
4. One party swallows the bitter pill and concedes while the other seemingly “wins”. Conflict could continue, especially if the “winning” party decides to carry on discussing the matters with other staff or bragging about how they were right and the other person was wrong.
5. The “wrong” party won’t budge and needs to be removed from the clinic and possibly let go.
6. The situation damages both workers and both leave.

Each situation will be different, but here are some ways to deal with feuding employees and try to avoid it in the future:
1. Meet with the feuding co-workers to see if you can remedy the situation. Establish clear guidelines on how the discussion process will work. For example, allow one person to speak at a time so that they can share their perception of the situation. Once both parties have voiced their issues, work with them on a solution. Be sure to meet with both staff quickly to avoid letting the situation fester and spiral out of control.
2. Alert all management to the situation so that they’re not blindsided by any necessary disciplinary actions now or in the future.
3. Put difficult employees on notice or probation, or to begin the process of transferring the troublemakers to another work area or when possible, another clinic location.
4. Advocate an environment of respect, tolerance, and civility in the clinic. Remind team members of these expectations periodically and ensure everyone, including management, practices a supportive environment.
5. Maintain an open dialogue with your employees. Freely sharing information and updates on the clinic and team changes will alleviate the need for gossip and rumors.
6. Establish guidelines with the staff on how they should attempt to manage their interpersonal conflicts at the clinic before taking their issues to management.
7. Review your policies on use of clinic email and social media sites. Some disgruntled employees will take their rants online either within or outside of the clinic. Know your clinic’s electronic media policies and communicate them with all employees.