Two of my employees hate each other—do I have to fire one of them? Elaine Varelas discusses the options

When employees who have to work closely together don't get along, it affects productivity and creates a negative environment in the organization. But is termination the only option? Elaine Varelas provides guidance on navigating your employees' interpersonal conflict.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: I have two employees who work closely together (cover each others’ breaks and PTO, partner on projects, etc.), but they simply do not get along. It’s a constant stream of passive-aggressive jabs and outright criticism and hostility. There’s a significant age difference , so perhaps it’s an intergenerational issue? I don’t want to fire either one, but this can’t go on. What can I do?

A: Intergenerational difference is one potential factor, but there are probably many other factors and that’s what you need to identify. Figuring out why people don’t get along can actually be a science—a difficult one. Large organizations have the option of moving problematic employees into different roles and departments, which may not actually solve the problem. Smaller organizations often don’t have that flexibility and it can be quite challenging for a manager to get either party to listen or be self-reflective enough on how they contribute to the conflict. If these are valuable employees and you want to save the situation, investing in a neutral third-party coach can help achieve that in ways that a manager can not. An executive coach would help these individuals understand more about their own and the other’s style. A strong place to start with any developmental need is self-awareness—further progress will stem from there.

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The ultimate goal is to identify the complicated differences between these two that create the conflict. A coach will help both employees understand their own work and thinking styles and those of their counterpart. These are not identified as right or wrong, or stronger or weaker, just different and equally valued. Until this understanding is established, a workable compromise is elusive. There are many tools available to elucidate an individual’s style and how that style might interact with others. For example, a certified coach might administer an MBTI or Social Styles assessment to get a sense of where these individuals align and where they clash. Conflict could stem from something as seemingly simple as having one employee who prefers to communicate via email while the other prefers to communicate verbally. It can also be more complex—some people are very action-driven and want to make quick decisions, while others need time to reflect and process information before acting. The key here is to respect your own and your colleagues’ strengths or preferences, while adapting appropriately to ensure professional interactions.

You say you don’t want to fire these individuals, yet I’m not sure that they even recognize they’re at the point where job loss is imminent for one or the other. Even if they do realize this, a huge part of the challenge of getting people to behave differently is that they often don’t know how. They don’t know what sets them off, can’t recognize what causes the conflict, and can’t imagine that there’s a different, more productive behavior that they can adopt in place of the challenging behavior.

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Using the threat of being fired may end up being a demotivating factor rather than a motivating one, so handle these conversations with tact and professionalism. Communicate the weight of the situation to your employees one at a time and let them know that their and their colleague’s behavior are both contributing to the problem. Explain that you’re holding them both responsible for minimizing the conflict and acting and communicating responsibly. Each individual needs to get their own message, so they recognize that they are responsible for their own behavior regardless of what the other person does. Make sure they recognize that you are not going to tolerate this kind of behavior and that it’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed. You should also reiterate that they are each valued members of the team and that neither one is going to “win” in this situation—it’s about the team dynamic, not who is better and worth keeping over the other. As their manager, make sure you’re not playing favorites or sending subtle messages about who you think is more at fault. Stay neutral and focus on achieving an agreeable compromise.

Everyone involved—including you—should recognize that the solution to this problem may not make these two best friends, but being able to work professionally with colleagues who you may not want to invite over to dinner is part of professional workplace behavior.

This situation has ramifications beyond your team. Everyone at the organization is watching and trying to figure out if this behavior is tolerated. And on that front, potentially losing both employees may be better in terms of how it looks to the organization. How you handle—or mishandle—employee conflict will contribute to the overall culture, so it’s important not to let it become a norm.