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Navigating Fleet Staff Conflict


 

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By Don Dunphy

 


Workplace relationships can be the most difficult kind. They are as close as family ties, and frequently, one will see their co-workers more than spouses, children, and so on. The key differences are that your livelihood depends on your ability to work and interact with your colleagues, and the quality of your organization’s efforts can suffer greatly if you don’t. 

Therefore, fleet and mobility professionals can find themselves in the position of mediator and conflict mitigation manager , with two employees on either side and at odds with each other. 

“At its core, fleet management is a resource management discipline and the most important resource we have are our employees,” said NAFA Regular Member and Past President Christopher D. Amos, CAFM, Commissioner of Equipment Services, St. Louis, Mo. “Workplace productivity is negatively impacted by anything that distracts from people doing their job.”  

 

Bring the conflict participants to neutral territory for a controlled discussion of their grievances.  Listening while you enforce civility can sometimes eliminate a conflict resulting from a misunderstanding.  


Some distractions are presented in order to build morale, teamwork, and a sense of commitment to the group, Amos explained.  Some simply waste time when an employee is supposed to be working on accomplishing the organizational mission. “However, actual conflicts are distractions with no upside and the more cohesive a group is the more conflict seems to disrupt.”

Will It Work Itself Out?

An age-old method for dealing with such conflicts, both at home and in the office, has been to ignore it, expecting the interpersonal strain will go away on its own. 

NAFA Regular Member J.J. Keig, CAFM, Corporate Fleet Manager for the Americas with CBRE Inc.,  strongly rejects this approach because it almost never works. “Any negative situation will always become worse, and never heal itself. Unresolved issues create and maintain a negative and toxic environment in which morale and productivity both suffer. This will inevitably spread into overlapping work circles with the potential of far-reaching gossip lines, many of which will distort the facts and events.”

 “I’m a firm believer in exercising good rumor control so at least employees aren’t stressed by imaginary worries,” said Amos.  However, quashing the chatter can only address one of several aspects of poor communication, which Amos identified as the common denominator of many workplace conflicts.  

Understanding the overall demeanor of the team is important and, at times, the manager will be called upon to intervene when staff friction occurs. Such preemptive actions can keep simmering tensions from jumping to the next level, but not always.  How should managers approach the problem: with the “soft peace” of persuasion or the “hard peace” of immediately putting one’s foot down?


The Mediator

Going straight to the hard approach might be too much.

“Each situation has [its own unique] dynamic,” said Keig. “Care must be taken to not take a ‘cookie cutter’ approach.” An example of this might be a conflict that arose from verbal misunderstandings, a common occurrence within the work setting. These can often be settled with structured conversation. If, on the other hand, one party feels the other has deliberately acted in bad faith, the proverbial temperature in the room may already be too hot for a clarifying chat. First, though, you have to take that temperature.

NAFA Regular Member Demond Hammond, Corporate Fleet Manager for Service Corporation International, said, “The first step would be to identify the cause of the conflict, setting aside opinions, and sticking to the hard facts. Often when it involves multiple parties, I have found it is good to discuss the issue individually, but then bring both parties together so that they hear the ‘same message.’ This way each party will understand not only the impact but witness that there is no bias or favoritism, and that simply the issue at hand is on the table. “

Amos agrees, saying, “Bring the conflict participants to neutral territory for a controlled discussion of their grievances.  Listening while you enforce civility can sometimes eliminate a conflict resulting from a misunderstanding.  At the very least, it will give insight into [your] next steps.”


Conduct in Writing and in Practice

Your employee manual and policy are your friends. In most cases, an expectation of conduct is described in the manual, which employees are required to read, confirm understanding of, and sign off on said understanding. 

It is up to you, however, to ensure the policies are living documents, and that they are upheld and respected by everyone. “Above all else, be consistent and never let something negative slide, especially when your employees can observe you letting it slide,” Amos said. “If you aren’t willing to enforce a policy, don’t make it. I’m a firm believer in praising in public and reprimanding in private.  However, if you ever walk past something [that goes against policy or expectations of conduct] and don’t make it clear that it is unacceptable, your inaction has established the real standard for employees.  A comment as simple as ‘you know better,’ or ‘I need to see you in my office, wait for me there,’ is enough to let any casual observer know a problem is noted and not accepted.”

Hammond said, “The manager should be aware of the process of identifying that their associates not only have read the manual but that it made sense to them and that they understand it. Most often, it is not until a specific policy is in question that employees will then have their first encounter with the manual. It is the manager’s job to use this as reinforcement or coaching opportunity of the policy.”

You might need backup, however, if a policy leans too much into gray areas. “This is where the human resources department needs to be brought into the fold,” Keig said. “Depending on the circumstances and the culture of the work environment, HR may actually need to be consulted in the early stages. Adherence to and interpretation of the policy is their responsibility, and their involvement may result in critical guidance.”


Maintaining the Resolution, Managing the Escalation

In an ideal situation, once a conclusion has been reached, the conflict is “one-and-done.” What level of follow-up should managers undertake to make sure old fights aren’t resurrected?

“Positive reinforcement is a good approach,” Hammond said. “Compliments that highlight changed behavior for the better could work wonders in motivating the associate to keep it up.” At the minimum, this confirms in the minds of your employees that you, the manager, remain engaged in your office’s relationship and demeanor.

“An informal check-in with employees can usually tell you what you need to know from unguarded, non-verbal communication cues,” Amos added. “If underlying resentment or anger is detected after a reasonable cooling-off period, a more formal discussion in private may be necessary.  If that fails too, it is probably going to require a physical separation, one employee from the other, or a separation from the organization entirely.”

If conflicts are not resolved, how should a manager go about escalation? When will upper management typically want a manager to take that next step? “This can be touchy, depending on the circumstances at hand, and also the culture of your immediate supervisor,” said Keig. “Some [upper] managers always want to be notified of any potential HR issue, in whatever capacity it arises. Other managers want their subordinates to handle anything and everything ‘in-house,’ as a function of your position. If you can handle everything, including HR matters, then you could be in a position for advancement. However, if you require assistance and are not 100% self-reliant, this may impact the way upper management looks at certain ‘grooming’ KPIs and your promotion potential.”

“Whenever there are conflicts the manager should always give a courtesy heads up to their direct report,” Hammond said. “This way, the next level is not blindsided if the issue goes from small to severe quickly.”

This is where knowing the personality of your immediate supervisor is necessary. A person could easily be caught in a “catch-22” situation where they could be criticized for pursuing either of the above directions. In such a dilemma, Keig cautioned, err on the side that is advocating for the greater good. “When in doubt, always seek guidance from HR or your immediate manager,” he said. 

“My first- and second-line supervisors certainly attempt to resolve problems at the lowest level possible and they usually succeed, sometimes with [my] consultation and guidance,” Amos said. When that’s not enough, he indicated that - by the virtue of his position - conflicts kicked up to his office often find new avenues to resolution. He dubbed this the “Wait ‘til your father gets home” effect. This is, of course, the second-to-last resort.

 
The Last Resort

There's always the potential that a staff conflict could result in the nuclear option of dismissal. What clear "red lines" should be established between management and staff to recognize what these are, realize the potential outcomes if such boundaries are crossed, and have confidence that a decision will stick, versus making this decision only to possibly have it undone farther in the organization? 

Hammond insisted that documentation is critical. Spell out all the reasons why the action is taking place, including the adverse effects that could take place if an action doesn’t occur.  “Know your available methods as a manager, the decisions you can make, and consult with HR on what is the best way to approach the issue. Become familiar with your options: layoff, reassignment, dismissal, and so forth.” No one wants to disrupt the current working situation.

Replacement and retraining can be expensive and complicated to implement. Make these your very last avenues-of-resort, and make sure you have fully illustrated why these were determined to be your final decision.

It is also critical that termination of employment is clearly articulated as an option to all employees, even if it winds up being the most difficult outcome. It might not act as deterrence, but the possibility of one losing their job due to irreconcilable differences should not be a surprise to anyone should it need to be enacted. 

Before one gets to that last resort, Amos is quick to remind what should always happen first, right as the first employee is on-boarded. “Fostering a work environment where mutual respect and tolerance are the norms makes conflict less likely to take hold.”


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