Insights | February 7, 2020

Conflicts within a work community and how to deal with them

Conflicts are regrettable, but everyday, occurrences in the workplace. One can and should seek to prevent disruptions at a workplace, but since they are an inevitable part of life, they cannot be removed altogether. A disruption might involve inappropriate behavior, harassment, workplace bullying, or a conflict with two sides. In addition, there is a completely separate set of issues in relation to different forms of sexual harassment, but that will not be touched upon here.

Claims of workplace bullying are often presented in connection with a challenging phase of the employment relationship, for example in relation to supervisory discussions, disciplinary action, warnings or a dismissal. However, not all behavior that may seem harsh from the employee’s point of view is regarded as harassment or bullying. Therefore, it is just as important to know how to recognize inappropriate behavior in a work community as it is to be conscious of what is not harassment.

What does not constitute workplace bullying?

In order for a behavior to be regarded as workplace bullying, the conduct must be relatively serious. Single, inappropriate acts are not usually regarded as harassment, such as an isolated or incidental comment. However, one unusual and single incident may be regarded as harassment, depending on specific features of that incident, such as an unequal position of the parties, the context of the incident or the seriousness of the conduct.

Differences of opinion, contradictions in relation to decisions made regarding the work itself, and the anxiety caused by them most often do not demonstrate that someone would have been guilty of inappropriate behavior in the workplace. Anxiety can be caused by ordinary, justified supervisory measures, such as delegation and monitoring of work, and work instructions and orders. When the right to supervise work is exercised ordinarily, it only very rarely constitutes inappropriate behavior, even though negative feedback and/or changes at the workplace may seem harsh. Nonetheless, the threshold for making claims about bullying at work seems to be rather low today, even in justified supervisory situations.

Addressing and finding solutions to work-related problems or referring an employee to the occupational health service on justifiable grounds also do not constitute harassment, even though the individual in question might find the employer’s measures unwarranted. Naturally, the situation is different if supervisory measures are being taken without any reason and with the intention of bullying someone, as this conduct constitutes harassment, requiring the intervention of the employer due to occupational safety and health obligations.

What constitutes harassment or inappropriate behavior?

A member of a work community faces workplace bullying when he or she is subject to repeated, continuous, systematic, negative, offensive, belittling, and repressive behavior, and when he or she is put in a defenseless position or is subject to negative consequences. Inappropriate behavior is ordinarily verbal, but it can also be non-verbal and can manifest itself in gestures, expressions, actions or attitudes. By its very nature, workplace bullying is offensive behavior that, if continuous and regular, can cause harm and danger to the relevant individual’s health. However, defining certain behavior as harassment does not require that the individual suffers ill health because of it.

Harassment appears in many forms, such as social exclusion, not taking someone into consideration, ignoring someone’s opinions, questioning, slandering, ridiculing, slurring, making malicious or suggestive comments, presenting false accusations, or displaying threatening behavior in general. Actions that are veiled as supervisory measures, but which do not have any justification, can also be regarded as bullying, such as persistent criticism and sabotage of someone’s work performance, changing work duties, introducing unilateral amendments to agreed terms of employment, forgetting to invite someone to meetings or not including someone in information communications, or giving humiliating orders.

How to deal with conflicts within a work community?

If it turns out that there has been inappropriate behavior, the employer must clarify the causes of the events immediately, carefully, impartially and thoroughly by hearing all the parties that know something about the matter. All claims must be examined, even though the individual subjected to the inappropriate behavior him or herself might object to this examination. Furthermore, it is not possible to go through an examination process if the individual accused of inappropriate behavior wants to remain anonymous. It is also the employer’s duty to safeguard the legal protection of this individual.

After the examination process has been completed, the employer must draw its own conclusions, decide on further actions, and make sure that the matter is appropriately communicated. The employer must remember that even though the matter at hand may not constitute workplace bullying or harassment, tense interpersonal relationships and misunderstandings are often associated with conflicts within a work community, the clarification of which should be dealt with no later than after the examination process. As regards the future, the employer must deal with the work community’s rehabilitation, if need be with the help of e.g. occupational health care services or work community arbitrators.

Usually, a well-handled examination process forms part of a dialog that unifies the work community and focuses on the future. If the conflict is handled without due care, and the work community’s future is not taken into consideration, a bad atmosphere in the workplace – as well as the badly handled examination process itself – can become a burdensome stress factor for the work community, the prevention and removal of which is also a work safety obligation of the employer.

Well-being at work and prevention of conflicts

In order to prevent inappropriate behavior, as well as claims made on flimsy grounds in relation to harassment and workplace bullying, it is essential that instructions are provided to employees as to what constitutes inappropriate behavior. It is just as essential to highlight what kind of behavior does not amount to workplace bullying or harassment.

Everyone in the work community should be aware of the kind of examination process used at their workplace. Rules that are known to everyone and drafted together help the members of a work community to assess where to draw the line for inappropriate behavior. It is also important that the individual subject to inappropriate behavior knows how the process starts, what he or she should do, and knows that it is his or her obligation to inform the perpetrator that the behavior feels inappropriate. In addition, it is important to know what kind of process follows after a complaint has been presented. Often, those who filed a harassment complaint and were not aware of the examination process currently in use may have felt that the process itself was even harsher than the actual inappropriate behavior.

Advice to employers:

  • Treat the examination of conflicts within the work community seriously and with humanity.
  • Invest in preventing conflicts within the work community and creating a good work atmosphere.
  • If there is no expertise in how to draft rules or how to handle examination processes within the organization, seek help from an external expert or an authority responsible for occupational safety and health issues.
  • Invest in the examination process. A faulty examination process and the related consequences might, at worst, become an even more serious problem in the work community than the original conflict.

Our experienced team of lawyers can assist you in all areas of employment-related questions, and are happy to answer your queries.