What to do when your employees are annoyed at each other

Every entrepreneur must know how to solve and minimise the risk of your staff fighting each other

What to do when your employees are annoyed at each other

Poor personal hygiene, frequent smoking breaks and constant lateness are some of the habits that might rub colleagues up the wrong way. However, as an employer it’s your job to ensure these peeves don’t spiral into open conflict between your workers. 

And you may need to take this threat seriously as 96% of UK employees have been irritated by their colleagues, according to a survey from instantprint. Having polled 800 UK-based workers, the online print provider revealed 58% were regularly annoyed by co-workers. Interestingly, staff thought senior management members broke office etiquette the most, with 30% sharing this sentiment. 

The top five pet peeves among British professionals were poor personal hygiene, eating smelly food in the office, frequently taking smoking breaks, constantly whistling and being late. “The insight given by this research allows businesses to address those issues that grind away at people, importantly if your team are happy they keep your customers happy,” said James Kinsella, co-founder and CEO of instantprint. 

But these figures may not be that surprising. “People who spend vast amounts of time with each other in a working environment are at some point going to annoy each other, it’s a fact,” says James Constantinou, founder of Prestige Pawnbrokers, when speaking with Elite Business. 

He adds: “When one individual routinely turns up late for work, of course it’s going to cause a problem for the rest of the team. Likewise if someone isn’t pulling their weight, calls in sick repeatedly or is generally negative about the work they do then others are going to get annoyed.”

To make things even more complicated, the worker who consistently and repeatedly infuriates their colleagues may not even know it. “Most of the time people don’t realise they are being annoying, so the crucial issue is how conflicts are addressed,” argues Matt Weston, managing director of Robert Half UK, the professional staffing services company.

There’s clear reason why they must be managed sharpish. “When we’re annoyed we obsess and obsess and obsess,” argues Paul Russell, co-founder and managing director of luxury training company Luxury Academy. “Suddenly, small irritations and slights feel like huge mountainous insults and this can impact on team morale and customer service levels.” 

He adds: “The problem isn’t that staff get irritated with each other but that it is allowed to build into something much bigger because it’s ignored by employers.”

To ensure these workplace annoyances don’t spiral out of control, employers must first learn to recognise the signs that everything may be far from tickety-boo. “Look out for pockets of private conversations which could be your employees sharing their irritations with peers,” advises James Calder, CEO and founder of Distinct Recruitment, the recruitment agency. “An increased sickness rate could indicate that these irritants have reached a point where some of your staff don’t want to come to work. It’s important to keep a watchful eye over employees being short with one another to identify any problems before they get out of hand. Negative body language can also be a key indicator of how staff are feeling.” So look out for for sideways glances, eye rolls and snide comments. 

Other warnings may include not volunteering to help each other. “[Not] only is this a sign of team breakdown but it’s also a sign that colleagues may be feeling disengaged – usually the more motivated a colleague is the more likely they will proactively offer to help, even when they don’t need to,” says Weston. “This is a sign that friction within the workplace is having a damaging effect.”

Moreover, employers should also be alert when employees’ confidence drops. “[This] is perhaps the biggest red flag of team tension and the one most likely to lead to a colleague handing their notice in,” Weston continues. “One of the first signs of this is when top performers are regularly making little mistakes. If this is happening, we recommend taking action – and quickly.”

In other words, the last thing you want to do is ignore employee conflicts, no matter how subtle. “Step in and deal with it,” implores Russell. “Don’t let it fester or bubble under the surface. It will only get worse and in most cases you’ll find that the issue is something very simple and easy to fix. Most leaders don’t like confrontation so they try and ignore it, hoping it will resolve itself.” 

So start by addressing the situation. “Speak to the employees separately to understand what’s the cause of the issue, with a view to facilitate a meeting to get things out in the open,” advises Calder. “Open communication can resolve matters if the matter is tackled quickly.”

And when you do start to talk, assume good intentions. After all, not all arguments are caused by conscious antagonism. “Some workplace conflicts stem from misunderstandings rather than actual disagreements over fact or policy,” says Weston. “Encourage your employees to consider the situation from different points of view. Put simply: make sure they don’t jump to conclusions.”

An open dialogue is obviously a good start. As a rule of thumb, try to be diplomatic. “Aim to create a win-win situation where both parties walk away gaining something,” Weston suggests, adding that employers must ensure employees let bygones be bygones once the conflict has been resolved. “Encourage them to move on and don’t look back. Your employees don’t have to be best friends but they do have to be civil and professional.”

At the same time, be mindful that these conflicts may not always have an easy fix. “It’s important to be mindful that sometimes irritations can be quite personal and, in some cases, [related] to issues outside of the workplace [which] will require using more tact and diplomacy so as not to make matters worse,” Calder continues.

And that’s when you may need to reach out to an outside expert. “Sometimes empathy and dialogue can only go so far,” Weston explains. “If the issue is serious, such as workplace bullying, you might have to ask human resources to recommend a way forward. Effective conflict resolution occasionally requires a mediator.”

Fortunately, there are ways of minimising the risks of workplace conflicts. For instance, employers should make efforts to get to know their employees in through regular one-to-ones. “One-to-ones are when the meaty conversations take place, providing the opportunity to build a connection with employees and getting to understand how they tick,” says Ian Feaver, European sales and marketing director of workplace culture specialist O.C. Tanner Europe. “By building up trusted manager-employee relationships, any potential irritations and issues between staff should be spotted early, allowing for a quick resolution.”

Similarly, providing opportunities for your workers to get to know each other can also reduce the chance of conflicts. “Socials, outside work, are a good start,” advises David Morel, CEO and founder of Tiger Recruitment, a secretarial recruitment agency. “Giving people the chance to get to know each other outside the workplace and without the stresses of day-to-day tensions could be all that’s needed to find common ground and alleviate strained working relationships.”

And while it may seem a bit cliche, creating a good company culture can work wonders when it comes to minimising workplace conflicts. “Employers [must] encourage a culture of inclusivity, tolerance and recognition so that staff realise the importance of being understanding of colleagues’ differences and appreciative of their efforts,” Feaver says. “This will reduce the likelihood of staff conflicts occurring.”

Not only will initiatives like these help reduce the risk of workplace conflicts but they’ll also make your office a more enjoyable place to be for everyone. Now that’s a great win-win. 

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson

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