Dealing with difficult colleagues

A difficult colleague can make life at work unbearable.

Yet conflict in the workplace is common – 38% of UK employees have experienced some sort of interpersonal conflict in the past year. On this page we explain how these conflicts arise. We look at the damage that they cause, and we explain how mediation can help make working life a bit easier.

Difficult colleagues are hard to approach. Tackling the problem is difficult, and it is tempting to let matters fester. And things can get worse if people get isolated or marginalised.

We have written a step-by-step guide showing how workplace mediation can work for you.

We can offer a free 30-minute telephone consultation if you want to discuss your problems in confidence.

When we talk about a ‘difficult colleague’ we think of it from our own perspective. We turn a blind eye to the possibility that deep inside a ‘difficult colleague’ is a frustrated and stressed human being  feeling unsupported, unappreciated and unable to carry out their job. A person who wants to bring the best to their work, is passionate and committed, and who wants to get it right.

When conflicts arise between two colleagues we need to understand the factors that has made one of them behave and react in the way they have. Often a conflict starts over a single issue – sometimes apparently trivial – which becomes unresolved and which then escalates.

Why do disputes arise in the workplace?

The commonest issues that cause conflict are:

  • Performance targets, timekeeping and workload
  • Reorganisations, restructuring and changes in working patterns
  • Lack of resources
  • Blurring of role clarity and areas of responsibility
  • Working environment, Health and Safety at work
  • Bullying, discrimination, dishonesty

But sometimes it is more useful to look at the reasons for workplace disputes in a different way; we can frame disputes in terms of the underlying relationship breakdown.

Disputes that escalate, become protracted and become unpleasant are often, in reality, inter-personal disputes. Often they are about:-

  • Personality differences
  • Methods of working
  • Power and abuse of power
  • Historical grudges 

Personality clashes are often a clear and obvious source of conflict. There may be a cultural dimension to this, and differences can arise for religious/racial, inter-generational or other underlying reason. An imbalance of power or authority between the two parties can also play a big part.

Some people seem to relish conflict. Perhaps they feel it defines them in some way, or that it is the only way that they can get results. 

And some staff just don’t ‘fit in’ or are just not likeable. Background, familiarity, language and their degree of comfort in the workplace surroundings are all important. Being a bit different makes criticism by colleagues much more likely.

How do conflicts escalate?

Conflicts can escalate and spread. Escalation is especially difficult when the dispute involves a line manager or a colleague who cannot be avoided day-to-day. And this can have immense consequences. It can lead to demotivation across the entire department or unit. Attitudes become entrenched; stress rises.

One in ten conflicts results in one or other party leaving their organisation or moving job.

Escalation is apparent when there is

  • A refusal to cooperate
  • Shouting  in private or in front of others
  • Verbal abuse
  • Bullying

Workplace disputes cost the UK an estimated £24billion per year. Much of this is due to prolonged sick leave and lowered productivity.

The impact of workplace disputes

Angry colleague with arms crossed
Workplace disputes can affect the whole organisation

Workplace disputes are expensive for an organisation. There are HR and managerial costs. Not to mention legal costs. But their impact is much more than just financial. Individuals lose their respect for one another. Over a period of time the argument sucks in other members of staff. The atmosphere at work can become sour as workers become angry, demoralised and stressed.

This can lead to widespread lack of engagement within the organisation and can have long-term reputational risks.

One NHS Trust calculated that they saved over £200,000 in the first 18 months of introducing mediation. They found mediations typically lasted only one day and required one (or two) mediators (together with basic administrative support). In contrast, the average grievance process could take months. And it could require witnesses to attend and give evidence, a great deal of HR time and much stress-related sick leave. Employment tribunals are even more time-consuming and can involve hefty and sometimes unrecoverable legal costs.

How can we resolve these conflicts?

Disputes at work often reach the attention of line managers, senior managers and HR staff. All of them have a duty to intervene. But solving an established dispute is time-consuming and unpleasant for all concerned. It can involve several members of staff. Trades unions, professional bodies and lawyers can all become involved. The costs and the aggro can rapidly escalate.

And all-too-often these conflicts get handled through Disciplinary or Grievance procedures. 

Line managers are often the first to get involved. They have a critical role to play. But many of them find it difficult to have awkward conversations with their staff, particularly if the conflict has become personalised. Yet if the conflict is not managed directly at an early stage it will become harder to fix.

How does mediation work?

A mediator is a neutral individual called in to resolve the conflict. He or she must be viewed by everyone as impartial and independent. The mediator spends time with each of the parties in the dispute.

Mediators focus on interests, not positions. What is it that the parties really want? What does the other person do that really upsets them? And if this matter goes to a formal process then what are the possible outcomes and how likely are they/.

Mediation is a voluntary and self-driven process. It is less formal than other processes but it is structured and planned, An agreement is put together by from the parties in dispute themselves, not by the mediator or from the organisation.

The mediator is not there to judge people or tell them what to do . He or she is in charge of the process but not in charge of the outcome. It is about finding a solution rather than finding out who is to blame.

In these disputes it is often helpful to have two mediators (co-mediators) especially if age, gender, cultural background or similar factors are present. Having two mediators can prevent allegations of bias.

Confidentiality

Being able to speak openly and in confidence is critical. Mediators are bound by a strict code of practice. They will only share information with others if they have permission to do so.

This makes it easier for the parties to express their true feelings. Because being heard and understood is an important first step on the way to finding a solution.

And since everything that is said in a mediation remains confidential, the exact details of what was agreed do not need to be disclosed. Other colleagues and managers simply need to know that an agreement was reached

Mediation and formal procedures.

Both mediation and formal grievance procedures can run alongside one another in parallel. Mediation can be a preliminary step, embedded within a more formal process. It may not make the more established grievance and disciplinary procedures redundant, but can help to stop potentially very damaging conflict in the early stages.

But mediation and formal processes are very different in both concept and practice.

  • Grievance procedures look backwards. They are set up to investigate whether or not something wrong or bad was done in the past. It is judgemental by design. And the solutions that it imposes are primarily punitive and dogmatic.
  • Mediation looks forwards. It acknowledges that there have been difficulties in the past but it focuses on moving forward, finding a pragmatic solution that works for both parties, and it is primarily non-judgemental and pragmatic.

Employment tribunals and grievance procedures do not resolve any of the systemic problems at work that underlie an individual dispute. On the other hand, mediation can trigger employers into making changes that can benefit other employees and the organisation more globally in the long term. It also demonstrates the organisation’s commitment to resolve disputes fairly and constructively.

Mediation is also different conceptually from Professional Reviews – we have more information about this here.

…we are currently revising our grievance policy to encourage employees who are in conflict or dispute to seek informal resolution, using tools such as mediation … prior to resorting to raising a formal grievance.”

Independent Police Complaints Commission , Head of HR

When is workplace mediation especially helpful?

  • A breakdown in relationships
  • Bullying or harassment  
    • Serious cases of bullying or harassment may need formal and/or criminal procedures
  • If managers cannot deal with the issue themselves
    • This includes the situation where the dispute is between a manager and their junior.

And when is mediation unsuitable?

  • When one party is completely intransigent, or feels they do not have the power or authority to settle the issue
  • When line managers aretrying to avoid their managerial responsibilities
  • If criminal activity (including threatened or actual violence) is involved or suspected.
  • Gross misconduct such as theft, fraud or a serious breach of confidence.
  • Where agreeing a solution is outside the parties’ power or control

Mediation may not be appropriate for Investigations into poor professional performance, especially when it is suspected that a worker is unskilled or unsafe. However a confidential agreement that an unsafe worker will seek retraining or external appraisal as a part of an agreed package of actions may be an excellent outcome for all concerned. We have more information about this here.

Case History

Doctors dispute over job plans

Two doctors working in a small team were unable to agree their job plans and timetables. In particular, one of them felt that the two plans were not equitable. The case was referred to Richard for mediation

During the mediation it became apparent that the department was considerably understaffed and there were increasing workload pressures. Their line manager, who was not involved in the mediation, had insisted on certain restrictions on their timetables which one of the doctors had agreed to but the other had not. There was no real quarrel between the two doctors.

Ensuring that someone with the authority and power to settle the issue is essential. Mediation needs to bring the correct people to the negotiating table.

How do we start mediation?

Mediation can be initiated by any party. And it can take place at any stage in the conflict. Often HR staff or line managers make the first approach. Mediation can be used before more formal procedures have started, or it can run alongside them. It can even take place after formal processes have been completed, as a way of rebuilding relationships.

Some organisations have mediation included in their grievance policies – renaming these policies as ‘Grievance Resolution Policies’ to help emphasise the fact that resolution is at the core of the policy. Organisations should also ensure that internal investigations, disciplinary panels and appeals panels are made aware of the potential of mediation, and that there is continuous promotion of its use.

Some large organisations have already established in-house mediation services. These use either internal staff or external staff. Public-sector organisations are especially likely to train up internal mediators who take on this role as volunteers. This  may appear to be cheaper, but the volunteers may not be fully impartial or uninvolved and may not be sufficiently experienced as mediators. 

We have written a step-by-step guide to starting Workplace mediation here.

Muswell Hill Mediation Logo

Relevant experience

Richard Marks has had experience in resolving workplace problems throughout his career, and has held several high-level managerial roles within the NHS.

Dealing with doctors performing badly

Richard at his Vice-Presidency inauguration
Richard was Vice-President of the
Royal College of Anaesthetists

Richard was the national lead for Anaesthetics Revalidation. This is the process set up to ensure doctors are fit to practise. He dealt with many complaints and problems affecting individuals. Many of these were related to career, personal and lifestyle issues. He also sat on the national Anaesthetic Welfare committee, responsible for providing a central resource for doctors in difficulty.

Individual poor-performance enquiries

Richard has led enquiries into individual poorly-performing doctors. The decision to remove a doctor from work is never easy, and patient safety is paramount. But sometimes a personality clash between staff members can lie at the heart of the problem. 

Supporting whistleblowers in medicine

Doctors have a dual responsibility to their employer and to their individual patients. If a doctor perceives that the clinical services they are involved with are of a poor quality, and they are unable to make changes themselves, they can feel compelled to speak out to the press or others outside their hospital. These doctors feel they are fulfilling their professional obligations.

However their employers are likely to label them as trouble-making whistleblowers and take actions to silence or discipline them.

Richard helped to prepare the legal case for a prominent whistleblower in London, helped with getting another proper recognition for the immense good he had done for his patients, and he was featured in a TV documentary on the subject.

Developing NHS mediation services

Richard has developed a triage system for disputes in three NHS hospitals to expedite cases suitable for mediation

Case History

Refusal to follow administrative processes

Richard was asked to mediate in a long-standing dispute between two health workers in a local hospital. A senior and experienced worker was in dispute with their line-manager because the worker refused to attend certain meetings and to comply with new administrative procedures. There was no doubt that the worker had excellent clinical results with their patients. The worker was older and more experienced that the line manager, and felt the meetings were a ‘total waste of time’.

The senior worker was very pleased to discover, during the mediation, that the line manager acknowledged and respected their clinical results. So they felt that they should be permitted to carry on working in the (successful) way that they always had done. At the end of the mediation the two parties understood each other’s position; unfortunately there were no changes agreed by either party.

Workplace disputes that arise from different ways of working are notoriously difficult to resolve. An uneasy truce, with both sides recognising the skills and abilities of the other party, was the best that could be achieved in this case.

More information

Further reading