How to handle fighting co-workers
November 16, 2012 12:33 PM   Subscribe

I am the owner of a very small business which I purchased (with 2 silent partners) 3 years ago. On most days there is only me and two other employees. The problem I'm having is my two employees have gotten into some type of conflict where they are now not speaking to one another.

One lady is in her 60’s and has been working at this store for over 20 years. She is sometimes difficult especially when we make any changes to the status quo but she is great with the customers and she has known some of the clients for many years. The other is a new lady we hired about 2 years ago who is also great with customers especially with the large number of polish clients as she can speak polish. This new lady is at times very sensitive and takes any affront (perceived or otherwise) to heart. Both are good employees with their strengths and weaknesses and firing is not an option I want to consider.
I'm not sure what the nature of the conflict is. About a month ago, New employee had asked me why Old employee wasn't talking to her ago and I said I didn't know. Later, when I asked Old employee what’s going on, she dodged the question by saying that everyone gets more work done when they don’t talk. Since then, I've left it at that.
In our small store, the workflow is such that there isn't that much communication between them needed but there is certainly tension in the store.
I am new to managing people, especially ones that I feel are replaying the Housewives of New Jersey at work. My natural reaction has been to ignore this drama until they grow up and work it out or someone quits. The extra trouble of going as the in-between-er a few times a day seems less bother than facing this situation head on. But part of me is saying ignoring the problem is never a good idea (I am however, very good at that). Please advise me if my approach is stupid and if so, how should I attempt to fix this problem?
posted by drug_dealer73 to Work & Money (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"Folks, you have two choices. You can either work this out between yourselves, or you can ask me to mediate whatever the conflict is. But your job requires you to communicate to work effectively, so pick one now."
posted by DarlingBri at 12:37 PM on November 16, 2012 [34 favorites]

You're the owner. You don't have to put up with this shit.

It's laudible that you want to keep both, but they're both acting like children. DarlingBri has it, and if they won't resolve it. Fire them both and start over.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:40 PM on November 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think Old Employee really needs to stop this. I think she's pulling rank on New Employee in some way. (Although two years is really not that new.) But she knows that people will put up with anything she does. It sounds like New Employee might be a bit of a pain in the ass, but she's not the one who's refusing to talk. I hate the current popularity of the word "bully" but Old Employee sounds like she might be a bit of a workplace bully. So I would just talk to her and say, fine if you don't want to be talking all day but you really cannot refuse to talk to another employee.
posted by BibiRose at 12:40 PM on November 16, 2012

Start looking for someone else who speaks Polish. When you find them, consider replacing the newer employee. Until then, wait it out and try to schedule them opposite from each other.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:43 PM on November 16, 2012

> My natural reaction has been to ignore this drama until they grow up and work it out or someone quits.

This is everyone's natural reaction. It's also why good managers are so valuable, and why they make so much money. I'm sure you do a hundred other things as owner, but this is now your responsibility. If you want to be successful, learn how to handle this or how to hire someone who can (a mediator?).

These are human beings, and their feelings should be cared for and their thoughts on the situation taken seriously. It's great that you cared enough to ask for help, but if you can treat this as a serious business issue, and a serious human issue -- in which you may have some power to do good -- you will be a success. As a person.
posted by amtho at 12:56 PM on November 16, 2012 [15 favorites]

This is a dicey proposition, but I have had this work once. The two women it worked on HATED each other and had for years. I needed them to at least pretend to play nice just so work could get done.

Go to older employee and tell her that you understand that she and new girl don't need to be BFF, but you need her too, as the adult, responsible one to make an effort to reduce the tension. You tell her that you rely on her and she is extremely valuable but the palatable tension is not something that you can deal with. As the older, wiser employee, she needs to step up and do this for the company.

Then, go to the newer employee and tell her you understand that things may not always be perfect in the workplace and you don't expect her to be BFF with the older employee, but you need her to make an effort to smooth things over. Even if she has no idea what she did or why she's getting iced out, you need her to be the bigger person and try to play nice.

Then you hope that they never talk enough to discover you played them against each other. But that they talk enough to make the place less tense.
posted by teleri025 at 12:57 PM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Suggesting that this is some kind of "cat fight" (Real Housewives, are you serious?) demeans them as women and co-workers.

And yet their "silent treatment" behavior is not professional and borders on the childish. It's not appropriate for the workplace and, if they can't solve their differences themselves, it is proper for their boss, the OP, to step in and tell them that it's unacceptable and to cut it out.

I mean, honestly, unless it's a work-related performance issue don't get involved with mediating the dispute. If it's a disagreement on workflow or some decision you need to make to settle a disagreement, then settle it. But remind them that this isn't proper behavior at work and that you will work as a team.
posted by inturnaround at 1:03 PM on November 16, 2012

You ARE handling the problem.

Are you satisfied with the way things are working? Are you happy with your own response to this stress scenario? If you're not, you'd better get used to it because that's the way you handle this type of stress. If that's not OK, you must change something. Probably you.

It's OK to ignore it. It's stable. No harm no foul. Who said it has to be otherwise?

It's also OK to modify it. That means, first of all, describing what it is that bothers you about it accurately, and assessing the impact, value of solution, cost of avoidance, etc. One real danger is that you train yourself to be incompetent by inaction. It happens.

SMART (Specific Measurable Attainable Realistic and Time-limited) goals for changing things works for me when I change anything. That's how my mind works, though. Yours may work differently.

You also appear to be dealing with cross cultural (ethnic and age) issues. You may not speak the language/appreciate the dynamic. Could be this is normal. It may be that this is an optimum, given the constraints and your good efforts may disturb it into instability.

No easy answer, but you are free to change things and see what happens. I wonder what you'll do?
posted by FauxScot at 1:23 PM on November 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Keep talking to your older employee and find out what the issue is, talk it out with her privately. Don't be afraid, think of yourself as a mediator and not a judge/executioner. At least by knowing what's going on, you will be able to decide for yourself what to do about it.

My aunt owns a used bookstore and has two longtime employees who were her coworkers before she bought the business off her old boss. She also has a few newer employees. And she avoids dealing with conflict at any cost, especially when it comes to her older employees - she'd never fire them and they know it, and they take advantage of it. Tons of drama, too many ridiculous stories to tell - in contrast, this is manageable. You can handle it.

I understand respecting and valuing your long-term employees, but your authority as boss should be respected too. In this case, your old employee should understand you need to know what the issue is, because it's affecting the workplace. Managing involves dealing with interpersonal conflict too. Even in my industrial engineering firm, occasionally my managers take people aside to have a little heart-to-heart talk with them and find out what's wrong and how to address it properly and maturely.
posted by ergo at 1:55 PM on November 16, 2012

Bill 168, Harassment in the workplace (update to the Health and Safety Act) applies to you if you are in Ontario as your profile indicates. I assume other posters are unaware of Ontario Labour Law and the liability you are currently under. If the harrassment is due to a protected class then you are also risking violating the Ontario Human Rights Code. You should book an appointment with a labour/HR lawyer to find out how to proceed in resolving this situation without opening yourself up to further liability. What your older employee is doing is explicitly against the law and now that the newer employee has informed you, you are legally required to act. That you are running a business outside of the Health and Safety Act. which is a pretty basic requirement in legal business practices, concerns me; you should also have a conversation with a lawyer to see if you have accidentally opened yourself up to liabiliy in other areas of labour law.
posted by saucysault at 2:18 PM on November 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thanks everyone for the kick in the pants. I think there are some underlying cultural issues as Old Employee had complained in the past there was too much Polish being spoken in the store. Personally, I feel that having someone speak a client' s native language is a plus which I've pointed out to Old Employee.
Saucysault, your point about the laws in Ontario sounds pretty scary. Hopefully, by addressing this issue quickly we can avoid needing to see a lawyer.
posted by drug_dealer73 at 3:07 PM on November 16, 2012

Old Employee had complained in the past there was too much Polish being spoken in the store.

Obviously I have no idea about the specific personalities involved here, but to me "too much Polish being spoken" might be code for "too much going on that I can't control or monitor."
posted by Rykey at 5:18 PM on November 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would talk to each of them individually and be factual. Explain that you are aware of the tension between them, that customers are affected. Explain that you value their work, and that you believe each one of them brings individual qualities that make the business successful. Also, that you will help them resolve their issues, but that they must communicate at work, and must maintain a professional, cordial atmosphere.

As a new manager, you may not realize how much authority you have just because you're the boss. Use it with caution, but be aware of it.
posted by theora55 at 5:26 AM on November 17, 2012

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