What Can a Manager Do When Employees Won't Get Along?

Coaching, Intervention, and Mediation Are All Musts for Workplace Harmony

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Managers face a sticky problem when they are confronted with the work environment that is created when two adults don't get along and they work in the same office. Depending on how deep the dislike goes—you did try to nip it in the bud, didn't you?—and the reasons why the employees are in conflict, improving the relationship is a challenge.

In one office at a major university, for example, two employees haven’t spoken to each other in over 20 years—and they sit next to each other in their cubicles. An effective manager would long ago have intervened because, usually, you're not stuck, and with appropriate mediation can address the issues like adults. In fact, this situation is an example of a management fail—an employee fail, too, but management intervention is needed to help develop the employees' conflict resolution skills.

You, hopefully, don't have to deal with angry coworkers as well since you're intervening appropriately and quickly, just the employees who won't get along. And, you can always fire a particularly bad apple. Before you get to that point, however, here's how to handle the situation when employees just won't get along with each other.

What Can a Manager Do When Employees Won't Get Along?

Identify the problem. You know that the problem is that the employees aren't getting along. But, what is the underlying problem? Why are the employees not getting along? Here are a few of the many possibilities:

  • One employee isn't pulling her weight
  • One employee is gossiping about the other who found out
  • Unfair pay structures that the employees know about
  • Jealousy
  • Clashing personalities
  • High-stress levels in the workplace
  • Favoritism of one over the other by the boss
  • Perceived inequity in job titles

Obviously, this list could go on, as the possibilities are endless, but these are very common reasons why people aren't getting along. It's critical that you identify the real problem because if you don't, you'll identify and implement the wrong solution.

For instance, if Jane and Heidi don't get along and you just keep telling them to work it out, it won't solve the underlying problem that Jane is a slacker and Heidi is constantly forced to pick up the extra work.

Likewise, if no one likes Steve, is it because he's truly terrible or is it because Frank has been spreading rumors? You really need to know to help solve the employees solve the problem when two employees don't get along.

Identifying the problem can sometimes require outside help. As a manager, you should bring in your HR person to help with this. Human Resources can often look at things from an outside viewpoint and spot what you can't see close up.

If you've been hearing over and over how awful Steve is, you might have forgotten that Frank felt that he should have received the promotion instead of Steve and thus, jealousy is the true problem.

Sit down with the source of the problem. Now, to be fair, it's rarely black and white. In the original example, Jane is a slacker which forces Heidi to pick up her slack, so you think, “Jane is the source of the problem.” But, you also need to consider whether Heidi is nit-picky, constantly criticizing Jane's work, or undermining Jane by contacting Jane's clients directly. In this case, you'd want to talk with both Jane and Heidi.

Here's a sample dialog for your discussion with Jane:

Manager: Jane, I've noticed that there's tension between you and Heidi. Can you tell me what is going on there?

Jane: Heidi is always criticizing me and jumping in on my clients.

Manager: I will talk to Heidi about that. I've also noticed that you leave work until the last minute, which may explain why Heidi is jumping in so often. I'll stop Heidi from giving you a difficult time and you can bump your timelines up so that there isn't any risk of missing a deadline. Would you like help to develop a revised timeline?

And here's how you can begin the needed discussion with Heidi:

Manager: Heidi, I've noticed that there is tension between you and Jane. Can you tell me what's going on there?

Heidi: Jane is such a slacker. I'm always having to do her work.

Manager: Why?

Heidi: Because if I don't do the work, the work won't get done.

Manager: It's my job to ensure that Jane's work does get done—not yours. I hereby relieve you of the obligation to worry about Jane's workload. If I feel Jane needs your help, I'll contact you.

Otherwise, you can focus on your own clients and you need to let Jane focus on hers. If you see a train wreck about to happen, come to me before going to Jane and I'll handle it.

Now that last part might be a little strange—because generally, it's better if employees work out their own differences without having to involve a manager. But, in a case where employees are at each other's throats, it's best to separate them as much as possible.

Follow-up: Now, here comes the hard part. You need to follow through. If you don't follow up with Jane to make sure that she's keeping to the new timelines and you don't correct Heidi every time that she tries to jump in, you won't solve the problem.

They'll still hate each other and they'll hate you, too, because they'll see your intervention as worthless. If you are going to solve a problem, you need to do the work to carry it through.

For a jealousy problem, you again need to address both people. For Frank, who is upset that he wasn't promoted, you need to tell him that the decision is final, and you do not want to hear him say anything else negative about Steve.

Follow up with a performance improvement plan, if necessary—and yes, not saying mean things about coworkers is part of a legitimate performance issue. But, Steve also needs to display sensitivity to Frank. It's hard to get passed over for a promotion.

Managers often struggle with coming up with solutions to the problem of bickering employees. But if you simply identify the underlying behavior issue, address it, and then follow up to solve it, you can work miracles in your department.

Most of the time, the employees are allowing their emotions to override their professionalism Your intervention as a coach and guide can help them move past the emotional aspects into solving the real, existing problem. Then, your employees will get along and you can create the harmonious environment at work that you want, too.