As businesses start to reopen, employers must keep on the lookout for issues that could arise amongst staff after being reunited for some time. Although this is an exciting period for businesses, and employees may be excited at the prospect of returning to work, the situation may not be as smooth as employers would like. For example, some employees may be bitter that they worked throughout the pandemic while others were furloughed, which they could view as staff being given a free holiday. Others still could take issue with having to stay in the workplace whilst other staff have been able to work from home.

If left unchecked, resentment could lead to several issues in the workplace. After all, workplaces will function at their best when staff can work well together, even if they are not all best friends. Throw something into this mix that could impact that, and companies may see losses in employee morale and productivity. They could even see accusations of bullying and harassment, which could lead to staff leaving and potentially costly claims being brought against the company if poorly managed. To this end, employers must be ready to encourage staff to be mindful of their behaviour and respond to instances as they occur.

The first thing employers should do is remind everyone in the workplace of what amounts to acceptable conduct. This has been a hard time for everyone, regardless of whether they had to stay at work or not, and employees should be encouraged to be more understanding of this. Many companies will have an anti-bullying policy, and this should be easily accessible by all staff members. While it is unlikely to expect all staff to get on like a house on fire, and it is to be anticipated there will be conflict between them, this conflict needs to remain professional. Offering fair criticism of somebody’s work will likely be fine; using this an excuse to insult them personally, such as bringing up them having been on furlough for the last few months, is not.

If there are instances of misbehaviour of this nature, disciplinary action should be considered if necessary. Anyone who comes forward should have their concerns listened to and feel like it was worthwhile for them to raise the issue. While some issues may require a formal response, such as an investigation and disciplinary procedure, it may be that disputes between employees can be resolved informally. Staff could be asked to put forward their issues and allowed to discuss them in a controlled environment. However, this will depend on the facts; serious accusations, such as bullying or discrimination, should always be dealt with formally.

With this in mind, staff should also be reminded of the company’s grievance procedure, through which they can raise an issue against a colleague and have it formally investigated. This should be undertaken by an independent third party to those involved, such as the manager of another department or an external provider. If the grievance is upheld, the company should consider implementing a disciplinary procedure against the perpetrator and acting from there. The accuser should also be able to appeal against the outcome of the grievance if it is rejected.

As we head into the next few months, a degree of uncertainty still remains surrounding the pandemic, and staff may respond to this in different ways. Employers must always be mindful of the mental health of their staff, and conflict between them could only serve to make their situations even more stressful and upsetting. To this end, alongside responding to conflict when it arises, staff should always be encouraged to use the company’s Employee Assistance Programme, if it provides one, to discuss any personal or professional issues they may be having. This could help to dissuade them from taking their concerns out on each other.

Currently, many employers may be looking ahead to ways to retain staff going forward, such as by allowing for increased levels of homeworking or hybrid working, where staff work both from home and the office. In doing this, they must also make sure they are not favouring employees for certain things, such as the ability to work flexibly going forward regardless of whether they have been on furlough or worked throughout the pandemic. Such an action could lead to accusations of favouritism, which again could impact significantly upon employee morale and productivity and ultimately undermine the actual purpose of such a new arrangement, which is to improve employee satisfaction whilst at work.





Kate Palmer is HR Advice and Consultancy Director at global employment law consultancy, Peninsula.
Kate joined in 2009 from a worldwide facility services company where she was Senior HR Manager. Her exploits included providing HR & employment law support to over 30 UK hospitals and dealing with high profile NHS union cases—expertise she now brings to Peninsula clients.
Today, Kate is involved in all aspects of HR and employment law advice.