Conflict can happen like a slow leak or an explosion. It never goes unnoticed, and it rarely fails to leave its mark on an organization.

Still, conflict is practically a mark of success. It says that you’ve built a team of highly engaged, thoughtful, intelligent, and confident individuals. People who are invested in the company and their roles within it.

All that is good for business. However, conflicts that get out of control or go unaddressed not only chip away at energy and productivity, they leave your organization vulnerable. It’s your job, after all, to provide a nonhostile workplace, one where employees feel safe and free to speak their minds. If conflict escalates to the point where an employee feels bullied or otherwise harassed, the trouble extends far beyond some awkward moments in the break room.

Theories for addressing conflict are numerous and well-documented. (In my experience, they essentially boil down to “listen, be respectful, address your concerns with the party you have trouble with.”) I’d rather address policies around conflict, because you can go a long way toward creating an atmosphere where conflict cannot fester and where respect is paramount.

A conflict resolution policy lays out a clear method for addressing and reporting issues so that no employee feels singled out, helpless, or discriminated against when inevitable conflict arises. Simply putting a policy in place and making sure everyone knows it can help set a tone of respectful communication. In general, a conflict resolution policy starts with acknowledgment of the issue. What happens next depends on which method you instate for reporting. Common policies require one of the following or even a progression through these three methods:

  • Informal complaint: An employee reports the issue to his or her immediate supervisor. If you arm your managers with conflict resolution information, this can be a highly effective method of giving employees a forum and suggestions for addressing the issue. Follow-up to make sure the issue has been resolved is essential.
  • Formal complaint: A designated employee fields written or oral complaints, investigates the complaint, and then recommends a solution.
  • Mediation: An objective third party (from within or outside the organization) who has been trained in conflict resolution guides the parties in trouble toward a resolution.

The Society for Human Resources Management offers a sample conflict resolution policy that you might find useful. As with a lot of workplace procedures, most of the magic comes from having a clear policy that everyone is aware of. Overlook this aspect of human resources, and you leave yourself open to uncertainty within the staff and potential liability for your company.