Settling Disputes In and Out of the Workplace

Small businesses are like families. The team members may be close-knit, but spats are common. Outside people and businesses can create additional discord, as well. Sure, you could call in a lawyer every time there’s a tiff, but doing so would likely create permanent disharmony, along with excessive costs outside of most small business budgets.

While proper planning can help to reduce the number of disputes that disrupt your daily operations, you can’t prevent every disagreement. But, you can learn ways to deal with them before they become major legal issues.

Be the Parent When Handling In-House Disputes

Parents are masterful when dealing with their children’s inevitable quarrels, and the parental approach can work with employees, as well.

  • First, they set rules. Clear rules eliminate many sibling disagreements, and they can do the same for co-workers. Every business should have its own set of written rules. You don’t have to publish a full-color, 100-page employee handbook, but you should distribute something to employees that includes mention of the likely issues that can lead to inter-employee conflict, including sharing salary information, defining harassment and even honoring each others’ rights to a clean and quiet workplace.
  • They remain vigilant. Children don’t immediately run to parents when they have issues, but parents know their children well enough to spot signs of conflict and stop it before it gets physical. Business owners who really know their team members can develop the same kind of sixth sense through observation, and step in to stop disputes before they become serious or affect work quality and efficiency. If they don’t come to you voluntarily, then step in, and initiate a conversation.
  • They encourage selfresolution. Children’s disagreements provide teaching opportunities, so parents encourage them to work out minor issues on their own before stepping in with a heavy hand. So, if an eruption arises because an early-arriving employee always appropriates the best donuts in the lunchroom, a little guidance can help them find their own solutions before you take drastic action by prohibiting donuts or sending everyone to their rooms for a time-out.
  • They use parental power when needed. Some employee issues just can’t be resolved without executive decisions, particularly when they require a change in process or policy. For example, if a bottleneck creates a frustrating hurry-up-and-wait situation that causes disputes between the employees on either side of the bottleneck, you need to look at the process with a management eye to fix it properly.

You Can Be Your Own Advocate (Sometimes) in External Disputes

No business is an island. Even if you work alone as an independent contractor, you might deal with vendors, neighbors, and, of course, customers. Disputes may never arise; but, if they do, you need to be prepared by understanding the following principles:

  • Sometimes, a simple conversation works wonders: Not all disputes are lawyer-worthy, as long as you have the chops to handle rational, civil conversation. If a vendor fails to meet its commitments — or even if a neighboring business’ garbage on the sidewalk is disrupting your store’s walk-in business — a polite discussion about your concerns may be all that it takes to resolve the problem. Naturally, a collaborative spirit helps. No matter which one has the complaint, both parties should address how their own actions might contribute to a solution.
  • Well-drafted contracts clarify many issues: Just about anything in business involves some sort of contract. It may be a formal written agreement between business partners or between consultants and clients, but even a sales receipt provides rights to both parties. As long as the language is clear and both parties are reasonable, disputing parties can resolve many disagreements by adhering to contract language without calling in the lawyers.
  • Negotiation can resolve certain issues: Just as all contracts do not address every not-so-foreseeable issue, all disputes do not directly involve contracts. And, even if a contract technically exists, proving that you’re in the right may not even be in your best interest if it negatively affects a valued relationship. For example, are you willing to lose a valued customer just because you technically met your contractual obligations? You might offer to resolve the issue outright. Or, you might cut the price or offer a future discount. These are examples of negotiated solutions — and you don’t have to be the only one who gives in.
  • Third party intervention can help: If both parties are set in their ways, a neutral third party can help break the impasse. If you share a wall in an office complex with a business that blasts loud music, for example, they may not see any need to tone it down … until a disinterested person confirms that the noise is excessive. If identifying a neutral third party creates another conflict, professional mediators are available (for a price) to facilitate civil negotiations that help both parties reach a mutual agreement.
  • Serious issues may require legal support: Of course, not every dispute can be resolved without hiring a lawyer. To cite one example, what happens if a deceased partner leaves his or her interest in the business to family members, and the partnership contract language is murky in this regard? You would certainly need an attorney to represent your interests in the dispute (and probably to draft a better future partnership agreement, as well).

Handled Well, Disputes Can Strengthen Relationships

Disagreements are a normal part of life. When settled  with a degree of finesse, they can actually improve relationships. Customers can become more loyal when you illustrate your sincere desire to retain your relationship with negotiated fixes. Partners learn to work with each other more effectively when you resolve gaps in your partnership agreement. And, a friendly relationship with that noisy print shop next door might even become a valuable resource when you need a rush print job down the road.

The ability to resolve disagreements can create a powerful bond between people. Even if two warring factions don’t become besties, the civilized expression of their diverse viewpoints can unleash new ideas and new ways of thinking.

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