- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Updated April 2013
Workplace conflict includes any type of conflict which takes place within a workplace or among workers and/or managers, potentially including conflict between employees out of work hours. It is a broad concept that includes several types of conflict that are normally treated separately, including employment conflict and labor-management conflict. Beyond those two subtypes, however, workplace conflict may not involve the employer as a party; a workplace conflict may be between two or more employees.
This concept is important to employees, managers, and mediators and other neutrals.
Because workplace conflict inherently includes several other kinds, it can be difficult to distinguish from them. But it is not difficult to describe: Any type of conflict which involves employees, managers, owners, customers, or others present in a workplace can be an example of workplace conflict. Typically, because more precise definitions of several sub-categories of workplace conflict exist, the term "workplace conflict" is used to describe interpersonal or employer-employee conflict in a workplace which does not involve a union or an allegation of discrimination based on race, gender, or another legally protected criterion; but a more rigorous definition would include any and all of these elements.
A successful new product is selling well, and its maker is running the factory an additional four hours a day Monday through Friday as required overtime for all employees. But for the fourth Saturday in a row, the same three employees are called in for yet more overtime. If one of them objects about the perceived unfairness of being singled out for unwanted overtime, and gets into a heated argument with a supervisor, while the other two have no objection, this would be described by many as a "workplace" conflict. But if the reason the employee gives for believing he was singled out is related to race, sex, national origin, age, or another protected category, this would often be viewed as an "employment" conflict — whether or not the employee was ultimately found correct in that perception. And if all three employees together went to management to complain about being selected for the additional overtime, this would be "concerted activity", which is related to union activity, and which would make the event more appropriately described as a form of labor-management conflict.
There is hardly anyone in the work force who has not been exposed to a workplace conflict at one time or another. The concept is therefore almost universally relevant. But relatively few understand the intricate distinctions between types of workplace conflict, which heavily influence how they are actually handled in contemporary life. For example, the rights which U.S. workers now have were not all established at once, but over decades, and the resulting patchwork of laws, regulations, and agencies can be very confusing. A basic understanding of how labor law and employment law have developed, of why they are separate concepts, and of the different mediation and arbitration procedures that now exist to streamline the handling of large numbers of cases, can help anyone understand better how the workplace works.
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Clients, as well as attorneys and other professional representatives, need to understand at least a little about the range of possibilities for handling any given dispute. Without that understanding, they are in a poor position to assess the advice they are given or to assert what they actually need out of a process.