Workplace Referee-ing: Tips for Navigating Workplace Drama

Dear Marissa,

I recently had to break up a workplace argument between two of my best employees.  After things calmed down, we discussed the situation and I was surprised by how different the accounts of each person was.  It was as if they were describing two completely different situations!  I was really torn about how to move forward.

How do you decide who’s right and who’s wrong when everyone’s story is so different?


Workplace Referee


Dear Workplace Referee,

bigstock-Woman-Referee-With-Whistle-1959350First off, let me extend my condolences for the time you’ve lost in your workday navigating office disputes.  Its never fun deescalating tense situations, but when you have to do it with people on your payroll, it can be especially frustrating; and in your situation, these were your best employees!!##$$??.  I shutter to think of the things you go through with your poor performers!

But rest assured, you are not alone.

Workplace conflict is an all too common theme often triggered by poor communication skills, tense scenarios and good old-fashioned bad days.

Here’s my advice:

1.  Assess the Situation – talk to each party separately, get their personal account, but resist the urge to give an opinion or pass any judgment at this point.  Indicate that you are reviewing the situation (i.e. getting the facts) and that you will double back to them after you’ve had a chance to review the situation fully.

    • Be sure to show concern for the employee as a person.  Ask if they need a break or respite of any kind.
    • Prioritize any critical issues or flagrant violations of company policies that may have come up in the situation (i.e. harassment etc.).
    • Talk with witnesses of the incident as soon as possible (i.e. before there’s too much opportunity for the rumors to start flying around).

2.  Review Your Company Policies – do a quick review of your company values, code of conduct, employee handbook etc. to see if any violations stand out.  This will help you have an objective foundation upon which to base your findings.  If there weren’t any flagrant code or policy violations then you have more latitude for coaching your team members and using the situation for professional development.

3.  Talk it Out – There’s strength in numbers.  Run your initial thoughts by another leadership colleague, human resource representative or your executive coach.  This is especially important if you are emotionally charged about the situation or may be perceived as being biased.

4.  Sleep on It – Remember, you don’t have to make a decision right away.  Time has a way of providing clarity, especially with emotionally charged situations.  Give yourself (and those involved) some time to sleep on the situation before revisiting it again.

5.  Mediate – Never cheat adults out of the opportunity to work through their own issues.  Assuming safety is not a concern, bring the parties together and discuss the situation.  Be sure to set ground rules for your discussion.  You’ll also want to have each party play the speaker role and the listener role in the conversation; being careful to have each person validate the other party’s perspective before they switch roles.  Conclude by asking these questions:

    • What could you have done differently to achieve a better outcome in this situation?
    • What have you learned about yourself?
    • How would you like to move forward?

6.  Hold the Parties Accountable – You’ll want to show leadership and hold your team members accountable for their actions.  This is important.  There are rarely right and wrongs in these scenarios, its usually shades of grey.  Report your findings and hold each party responsible for their role in the situation; including yourself and the company if there was some ownership there.

It’s never easy.  Hope this helps.  Let me know!



By | 2017-12-18T12:25:13-06:00 January 23rd, 2014|Career Management, Leadership, Management, Online Advice|Comments Off on Workplace Referee-ing: Tips for Navigating Workplace Drama