Five Ways Medical Practices Can Better Manage Workplace Conflict

November 13, 2013

To help ensure you know exactly how to handle workplace conflict at your medical practice, we asked an expert to weigh in.

In any work environment, tensions arise between staff members, between staff members and managers, and between managers. The trick, however, is learning to manage that conflict so that it does not escalate into a full-blown crisis.

Due to the stressful nature of medical practice, workplace conflict may be even more common. To help ensure you know exactly how to handle it next time it arises, we asked Beth Brascugli De Lima, SHPR-CA, principal and founder of human resources consulting firm HRM Consulting, Inc., to weigh in.

Here are some of her key tips:1. Address conflict immediately. Even if workplace conflict seems minor, such as tension due to personality conflicts or workload, address it immediately.

"Make sure that we're addressing issues that occur in the workplace head on right away," De Lima told Physicians Practice. "Make sure that we manage them so we don't end up with a bigger problem that now throws us into a potential lawsuit."

2. Get an unbiased party involve. Ask the conflicting parties to meet individually with an unbiased party, such as your practice's HR manager, an office manager, and/or your managing physician partner. Finding a neutral third party is critical, especially if a physician is involved in the conflict, said De Lima.

"If they don't think that they can handle it internally with someone that's unbiased then that's the time to ask someone else like an HR consultant or an attorney if they want to come in and help them deal with the conflict in a very professional way so both parties are heard and we're sure there's not some other underlying issue that could lead to a lawsuit."

3. Determine the root of the problem. Once both sides air their grievances, it's time to determine the root of the problem.  "You really just have to dig down deep until you find out who is really providing the most credible information," said De Lima.

4. Deal with the problem. The way you deal with the problem will differ depending on the root cause.

If you find that the problem has to do with a violation of a state or federal regulation, such as discrimination or harassment, or you feel that it could potentially head that direction, it is important to conduct a thorough, unbiased investigation in a timely manner to determine if harassment, discrimination, or a hostile work environment exists.

On the other hand, if you find that the problem has to do with a lack of professionalism between employees or between one employee to the other, holding a performance appraisal or counseling session may be the best course. Be sure to document the issue, your attempts to mitigate it, and institute a plan for corrective action.

If the behavior does not change and you need to terminate the staff member, documentation will make it clear that you did so for the right reasons and that you provided the employee with an opportunity to modify his behavior.

5. Take a proactive approach to prevent conflict. There are some proactive steps practices can take to help prevent workplace conflict. Among them: instituting annual performance reviews and hiring for your practice's culture.

• Annual reviews. Performance evaluations of physicians and staff can help ensure staff problems that are creating small tensions in the workplace, such as poor teamwork, are addressed before they escalate into broader problems.

• Hire right. Prevent workplace conflicts due to personality conflicts by hiring for cultural fit, said De Lima. "If they know they have dogmatic doctors that are not as friendly as others might be, they want to hire people who can manage in that work environment."