HR – managing conflict is most of the job

XpertHR asked the question, “How much time does HR spend dealing with workplace conflict?”

Michael Carty reports the findings:

More than half of those surveyed say that managing workplace conflict takes up to 10% of HR’s time.

Rrrright….so what do they spend the other 90% of their time doing?

One in 25 organisations says it takes up more than 50%.

So the other 24 are in denial then.

OK, I’m being a bit facetious here but the truth is that much of an HR function’s activity is about managing conflict. Some of that is dealing with grievances and disciplinaries, which I suspect was what some of the survey’s respondents meant, but HR professionals also spend a lot of time making sure conflicts never get to the formal stage, either by mediating or coaching managers to deal with the problems.

Even those who are involved in specialist areas like policy development and reward are ultimately managing conflict. Why do we have HR policies? To make sure everyone knows the rules and to reduce the scope for arguments and disputes.

Why do we have grading structures and market pay data? We say it’s so that we know how much to pay people but really it’s more about being able to justify that pay when the arguments start at salary review time. It also stops managers paying staff over the odds to give themselves a quiet life – an illustration on the inevitable conflict between local business units and the corporate centre.

And what of the ‘nice’ bits of HR like Learning & Development? Isn’t that all about nurturing talent and bringing out the best in people? Indeed, but a major theme on most management development courses is the ability and willingness to have difficult conversations. If you shy away from conflict you can’t manage performance effectively and you can’t coach people properly either. Development and talent management might look like the touchier feelier end of HR but much of it is about helping people to learn to manage conflict.

And what of HR directors? As I’ve said before, the most effective ones are those that understand the messy nature of conflict in organisations. Those who are able manage that conflict in executive team meetings are more successful than those who simply run their own functions and opt out of the politics. HR directors probably spend more time managing conflict than most other HR professionals.

Should this surprise us? Not really, for conflict is endemic in organisations. As the great Harry Braverman pointed out, the nature of organisations and the employment relationship are bound to create a certain sense of alienation. Unless we are lucky enough to have inherited wealth or income from rents and investments, work is the only way of getting what we need. Furthermore, our status and sense of our place in society is, to a large extent, determined by what we do and where we work. There is, therefore, a hell of a lot at stake for us each time we turn up for work. That’s why the most emotive conversations in the workplace are about pay and performance, closely followed by status issues such as grades, job titles and who sits where in the office.

The mistake we make when discussing organisational conflict is to treat it as abnormal and pathological. We look at low engagement scores and think that something must be wrong. But, given that organisations are made up of groups and individuals competing for resources, conflict is actually very normal. Indeed, a workplace without conflict would just be plain weird.

And that’s why HR professionals, whose chief concern is the management of people in organisations, spend much of their time managing conflict. When they are not directly managing it themselves, they are designing processes to contain it, or helping others develop skills to manage it more effectively.

Organisational conflict, in its many forms, is one of the main reasons for the HR function’s existence. For an HR professional it is the most crucial part of the job. HR is all about managing conflict. 10% of the working day doesn’t come anywhere close.

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3 Responses to HR – managing conflict is most of the job

  1. Pingback: HR – managing conflict is most of the job - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Fantastic to see someone acknowledge that conflict is a normal result of organisational life. A lot of HR literature seems to ignore the fact that competition for influence and resources results in conflict and it is almost a taboo in organisations to acknowledge the underlying social realities of relationships in this context. I am always reminded of the hedgerow as a metaphor for this: from the outside it looks and sounds pretty but inside a ruthless evolutionary fight for survival is taking place. However, I was bemused by the idea that HR practitoners play a role in managing this conflict. I have had no experience of that whatsoever. One or two great line managers were very skillful in this regard but nobody from HR. Sorry.

  3. Great post, Rick!

    I’m extremely pleased that our survey has inspired you to write this. I love the points you make about how “conflict is endemic in organisations,” and that “organisational conflict, in its many forms, is one of the main reasons for the HR function’s existence.”

    As you suggest, almost all (if not all) aspects of the employment relationship have the potential to give rise to workplace conflict.

    My colleague Rachel Suff – who wrote the detailed analysis of our survey findings, which can be found here: – says much the same thing.

    In this article, Suff says: “Conflict is inherent in the employment relationship. […] The greater part of this conflict takes place between individuals and is played out on a daily basis, with most differences flaring up and being resolved outside an organisation’s formal procedures. For this reason, it is rare for any evidence-based studies to capture the more subtle, informal management of individual workplace conflict: that is what this XpertHR research aims to achieve.”

    She notes that levels of workplace conflict have risen over the recession, and that the public sector appears particularly prone to conflict.

    As regards the findings of our research on the proportion of time that HR spends dealing with instances of workplace conflict, we can only go on what the 190 employers that were so kind as to take the time to complete the survey have to say.

    I think it comes down to how we perceive and define workplace conflict. For the purposes of this survey, we were focusing on “conflict between individuals [as] played out on a daily basis.”

    But from a broader perspective, it could indeed be argued – as you suggest here – that “conflict is endemic in organisations,” and that, consequently, “HR is all about managing conflict.”


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