Managing Staff Conflict

By Victoria Vilas / 04 Feb 2019

Staffing specialist Victoria Vilas offers tips on how to identify and manage conflict in the aesthetic workplace

As full-time workers, we spend more of our waking hours alongside colleagues than we do enjoying the company of family and friends. We don’t get to choose our colleagues, we don’t all share the same views or personality traits, and a busy working week can lead us to feel more stressed than usual. It would take the patience of a saint to get through working life without experiencing some sort of disagreement with a colleague or manager.

A team of employees in an aesthetic clinic will have to interact with each other on a regular basis to keep the clinic running like clockwork, and to ensure that patients have a seamless treatment journey. If team members fall out with each other, the bad feelings could negatively affect team morale and lead to a decline in performance. You may even end up losing key employees who feel uneasy in the tense environment or see an increase in sick leave caused by stress.1

According to a survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in 2015, stress is the most commonly reported consequence of conflict at work, followed by a drop in motivation or commitment, and a drop in productivity.1

The decrease in productivity or reduction in quality of work could seriously harm your clinic business, so it is vital that conflict in the workplace is dealt with objectively and swiftly. Though we can’t be prepared for every bad mood or dispute that occurs, as a manager of an aesthetic clinic team, it’s wise to have some knowledge on how to identify and manage conflict.

Symptoms of conflict

Signs of conflict won’t always be obvious or follow the same pattern. For every employee who wears their heart on their sleeve and bursts into tears at the first sign of confrontation, there will be one who buries their emotions and tells no one of their anxiety. Some animosity doesn’t play out in a loud verbal argument, but simply in passing looks or the occasional comment when management aren’t within earshot.

Your own emotional intelligence may help you spot a change in mood in your team, but an objective approach can be useful for managers when trying to identify staff issues. Are any of your team members acting out of character? Has anything changed in your clinic’s day to day interactions between staff? Have staff members been taking more sick leave than usual? Has the level of patient satisfaction dropped in feedback received recently? All could be signs that there is a problem in the team.

If you believe that a team member’s unhappiness could be related to a grievance with a colleague or a situation at work, or you have an employee behaving in a negative way that could affect their team members, don’t overlook the issue.

Causes of conflict

The negative behaviour could be between two peers, or between a worker and their manager. Before jumping in to mediate, try to identify and understand the nature of the conflict. Could it be bullying or harassment? Issues relating to appraisals, pay or team organisation? Is it simply a clash of personalities? Also, try and work out whether the issue is work-related or personal, as some employees may spend time with each other outside of the workplace. As a team manager, you can help mediate and look at how to solve work-related issues, but employees should also act with professionalism and not bring their personal disputes to work. It may even be that you are one of the parties involved in the conflict. I would advise that you keep an open mind and consider whether you could be at fault, take the time to speak and listen to each other, and seek an amicable resolution.

To get to the root of the problem, you may have to spend a little more time observing your team, and speak directly to those involved. Try and stay objective when speaking to your staff members, and do not pass comment or judgment until you have collected feedback and considered your approach. Use language that demonstrates your objectivity to avoid sounding accusatory. For example, instead of saying “why did you insult your colleague?”, try saying “can you please tell me, in your own words, what you said to your colleague, and why?” Instead of saying “why are you angry”, try saying “you seem to be acting out of character, can you please tell me what may have caused this?”

Ask for accounts of actions and events, with details that can help you put together a clearer picture. For example, if a team member claims that “my colleague is horrible to me”, ask them for details of what has been said or done, when it happened and the frequency of these actions. Ask if they have responded, too. Be aware that sometimes those who shout the loudest are not necessarily the victims, and don’t assume that employees with supervisory responsibilities will always act in a manner fitting of their status. Managers can also cause issues when they communicate poorly with their team or offer their personal opinion on the situation – you should remain objective at all times.

Dealing with conflict

There is no fail-safe method of managing conflict that can be applied to the many situations that could occur, but there are some useful tips and suggested strategies that are offered by workplace advisory organisations such as Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas)2 and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).3

An informal chat may be a good place to start. Not every grumpy face is caused by a disagreement with a colleague, but if you notice unusual behaviour, or see a team member looking unhappy, it may be worth a quick check-in with them. It could be that there is no major issue to worry about, and perhaps an employee simply doesn’t feel right due to sleeping poorly, for example. It could also be a good way to catch staff conflict in its early stages, before the consequences ripple out to other team members. As part of an informal mediation process, you could encourage your staff to speak to each other, and work out a solution themselves, so you do not have to intervene and they can avoid a formal investigation. Sometimes the ‘sort it out yourselves’ approach may not be sufficient, though, especially if you have a headstrong employee who refuses to communicate with their colleague rationally. In more complex cases, you may have to take the lead, and follow a more structured mediation process. You may need to speak to your staff individually to get to the bottom of the matter, as some shy or anxious people may not want to speak their truth in front of another stronger, louder character.

Here are my top tips for your mediation process:

Be swift: Don’t leave the issue hanging around too long. You may have a busy clinic to run, but the quicker you deal with a dispute, the sooner you can resume normal service. Bad feelings left to linger could spread and affect your entire team. Prioritise conflict resolution and make time for meetings.

Be objective: Listen to both sides, focus on events and actions, and be objective when assessing the situation. Focus on the problem, not the people.

Be clear: Define what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the workplace and include your statement on this in your company handbook. Ensure that all new starters receive a copy of the handbook during their induction. Make clear the consequences if company policies are not followed, or company handbook rules are broken. Explain why it is important for you to resolve a conflict, for the benefit of the entire team.

Be fair: Don’t punish a team member before you have sufficient evidence to know they have been at fault. You also have the same responsibility to follow company policies, so follow your own handbook when mediating or making a decision on disciplinary proceedings.

Make a plan: Sit down with your employees and get agreement from both sides on how they will act towards each other going forward. Put this down in writing and get your employees to sign and date the agreement, so there is no future dispute over what was said or agreed.

If things don’t work out

If a dispute resurfaces, you may have to implement disciplinary proceedings. Again, the process should be included in your company handbook, so employees are aware of what may happen if they don’t comply. Remember that actions that fit the description of ‘gross misconduct’4 and should be considered cases for immediate dismissal. Gross misconduct generally constitutes inappropriate behaviour or actions considered serious enough to warrant dismissal. Each clinic owner may define what they consider to qualify as gross misconduct, but it would usually include verbal or physical abuse, bullying, unlawful discrimination, and serious insubordination.

Long-term strategies

Effective management is of utmost importance when conflict arises. If you handle the situation badly, your team may not respect you as a leader. It’s worth considering management training courses, as it may be hard to put aside time to study management approaches while you are in clinic with patients to look after. Training courses can give managers time out of the workplace to focus on honing their skills, or to learn new and useful tips for looking after the team.

To have a productive team and successful clinic, you will need to establish a company culture where team members feel happy and supported, and an effective management team who deal with issues fairly and effectively. As a clinic manager, you should also make time to check in regularly with all team members. Try and stay upbeat and look to the positives, even when you have to deliver some less-than-positive feedback. Perhaps look at setting aside some time for a team outing, including team-building activities. If your team get to have fun with each other away from the stresses of their workplace, they may get on better at work, too. 

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