“Interpersonal relations are just as important as technical skills.”

On average, Canadian managers spend 16% of their time—or two months a year—intervening in employee disputes, according to a survey by Accountemps of 300 senior managers at Canadian companies with 20 or more employees. Past studies from as far back as 1991 show similar results. Here is Robert Half and Accountemps Branch Manager Natacha Tougas’s take on the situation.

How do you explain that the 16% figure has remained the same since your first study on staff conflicts?
I think it’s unrealistic to expect companies to fully eliminate conflict, which is part of human behaviour and therefore something we have to accept. According to our survey, managers spend on average six hours a week dealing with conflicts, which is quite a bit. But there are numerous steps that can be taken to foster greater harmony.

When should managers intervene?
Just overhearing a slightly animated exchange between two employees is not necessarily cause to step in, but if the entire team’s morale is affected, managers should not turn a blind eye. Employees can be taken aside and given advice on staying calm, discussing the issue instead of blowing up, and respecting co-workers. At no time should managers give in to emotion and take sides.

Is there training available on how to manage conflict?
Not to my knowledge. It’s difficult to develop training in this area, since conflicts are very diverse and each case must be handled specifically. If managers cannot resolve a conflict on their team, they should appeal to the Human Resources department, which is more “neutral” and will remind the person at fault that the ability to collaborate and treat co-workers with respect is a requirement of the job.

Can employees who treat their colleagues badly be sanctioned?
People who become physically threatening, make noise, become red in the face and cannot control their anger should be put on notice, starting with oral warnings. If they do not heed these warnings and continue to behave badly, the Human Resources Manager can put together a file with the manager’s help that may ultimately lead to dismissal.

Conversely, should employees with good attitudes be rewarded?
Promotions are usually awarded to the best employees on the basis of results and performance, but I think we also need to reward team players, because interpersonal relations are just as important as technical skills. Positive people who come to work with a smile on their face and contribute to fostering good team spirit should be recognized.

You advise the Human Resources department to make informed choices upon hiring. How can you spot an employee’s good team spirit during an interview?
Recruiters tend to attach a lot of importance to a candidate’s technical skills and work experience. Personality also needs to be taken into account, however. For instance, I advise asking candidates how they react to frustrating situations and providing them with several choices, e.g. I withdraw into myself, I become red, I prefer to get out of the office. . . This can be a good way of determining candidates’ reactions.

You also suggest that team members attend the exit interview?
Yes, absolutely. At the end of the hiring process, when there are two candidates in the running with similar qualifications, I suggest that team members come and have a chat with them, without Human Resources being there. This allows future co-workers to see if the person will easily fit in.

What advice would you give to Human Resources for forging bonds among employees?
I advise organizing regular group activities, such as meals, get-togethers and outings. It’s also a good idea to mix teams. Often, you only know people on other teams through e-mail or the phone. Seeing co-workers in a more relaxed environment than at work can release the tensions sometimes felt at the office.

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