Workplace conflicts are rarely black and white, and managing them usually requires more than filing a complaint or firing somebody. To Joan Pastor, a licensed industrial-organizational psychologist, author, and executive coach who is a frequent speaker at AICPA conferences, conflict management is mostly a multistep process that includes assessment, analysis, monitoring, and negotiation.
To explain how it works best, Pastor likes to use examples. The classic conflict scenarios in this quiz are based on examples that CPAs experienced on the job and agreed to share with the JofA.
Test your conflict management skills by selecting all the steps you think should be taken to handle each conflict. Then find out in the answer section the process Pastor considers best practice.
1. Mary is a manager, and Joe is a staff member, from different teams in the corporate finance department. Joe works with Mary on a number of projects but reports to Bill, another manager and a peer of Mary's. Mary, who has about five years of experience in the industry, tends to be curt and sometimes demeaning to Joe, who has been with the company for nearly 20 years and is very knowledgeable of the industry. To manage the conflict between him and Mary, Joe should:
a. Shrug off Mary's behavior and continue to be a valuable member in the department.
b. Tell Bill what's going on and ask for his advice.
c. Work out a strategy with Bill to handle work assignments with Mary.
d. File a complaint against Mary with HR.
2. As manager of the corporate accounting department, Anne reports to Jim, who is the CFO and part of the executive team. Anne is concerned the executive team is adding, cutting, and shifting staff in the accounting department without strategic thinking and planning. Executive management directed her to eliminate a staff position and shuffle priorities after one of three entry-level hires didn't work out. Then, the executive team changed its mind, and, without asking for her input, reinstated the third entry-level position by shifting a position from elsewhere in the company to the accounting department. To manage the conflict between her and the executive team, Anne should:
a. Say nothing and trust that the executive team gets it right.
b. Talk to Jim to find out why the executive team issued directives without consulting her.
c. Develop a staffing strategy for her team and present it to Jim.
d. Look for a job at a company whose executive management appreciates strategic ideas from middle management.
3. Somebody in internal audit tells Susan, chief of the internal audit department, that Ray, one of her most technically competent managers, is displaying some very poor personal skills with those who report to him. In the presence of peers and superiors, Ray is very quiet and turns down offers of help, but he tells his staff that his superiors aren't supportive enough. "It's them, not me," Ray tells staff. "I try." The tension Ray creates in the department eventually leads staff members to quit. To manage the conflict with Ray, Susan should:
a. Put Ray on a performance improvement plan and monitor the results.
b. Schedule the whole department for personal skills training.
c. Intervene and give Ray a warning.
d. Let Ray go.
4. Bob and Jerry are full-time, salaried accountants who report to Harry. Bob shows up at 8 a.m. on the dot and leaves right at 5 p.m. Jerry comes in between 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. and leaves when the work is done. Their different work styles are creating a morale problem. Harry learns that Bob feels he's doing "all the work" because Jerry is not working enough and that Jerry feels the same way about Bob. To manage the conflict between Bob and Jerry, Harry should:
a. Establish a company policy that sets tiered work hours, so employees can work, for example, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
b. Offer each the option to work remotely a couple of days per week.
c. Track the professional development of Jerry and Bob and assess their strengths and weaknesses.
d. Ignore the squabbling as long as the work gets done.
5. Sally, a manager in the finance department of a not-for-profit with about 400 employees, receives a complaint from Rick, a staff accountant reporting to her, that he is being sexually harassed by Rose, who works for a team outside of finance. Sally gets HR involved, but no emails, surveillance tape footage, or other communication can be found on either employee's computer or company cellphone to corroborate Rick's complaint. Rose denies she harassed Rick. The organization closes its investigation into the complaint without taking action, but word gets out and employees across the organization start to gossip and take sides. To manage the conflict involving one of her team members, Sally should:
a. Do nothing and hope the gossip will die down or the accused and the accuser will leave the organization voluntarily.
b. Ask HR to come up with a training program that addresses sexual harassment and make it mandatory for each employee to attend.
c. Tell Rick she is going to ask executive management to not tolerate the gossip and clamp down on it in the finance function and elsewhere in the organization.
d. Suggest Rick and Rose receive counseling.
6. John is not an accountant but has performed several accounting duties in his 30 years in the finance department. Samantha, a young accountant who just joined the finance department, is taking over John's cost accounting responsibilities. Samantha has some attendance issues but is very good with technology. When she tries to automate processes and proposes a move to newer systems, John frequently stops her in her tracks and tells her, "That's not the way we do things." Both report to Amanda, the company's vice president of finance. To manage the conflict between John and Samantha, Amanda should:
a. Tell Samantha to get control of her attendance issues, then thank John for doing a great job and wait for him to retire.
b. Make it clear to John and Samantha that processes must be automated and new systems will be installed, and let them talk to each other about what each needs from the other to make the changes happen. Deal with Samantha's attendance issues separately.
c. Suggest to her peers in executive management that the entire company undergo training that addresses generational issues.
d. Partner Samantha with a mentor.
These answers are directional suggestions. To manage conflict in your workplace, you need to consider the situation's unique circumstances as well as your company's hierarchies, policies, and culture.
1. (b) and (c) The first step Joe should take is talk to Bill, his manager, tell him as factually as possible what is going on, and ask for his advice. Joe's second step should be to work out a strategy with Bill on how to handle work assignments with Mary. As part of the strategy, Bill may talk to Mary, he may tell Joe to talk to Mary, or he may tell Joe to ignore Mary's behavior, Pastor said, but that is not for Joe to decide. When the conflict is with somebody outside the department or one or more rungs up in the company hierarchy, a rule of thumb is to first go to the person you report to, she said.
2. (b), (c), or (d) Anne may talk to a friend or keep a journal about the conflict to prepare herself, but sooner rather than later, she has to begin managing the conflict by talking to Jim and asking him why the executive team did not consult her in her team's staffing decisions. There might be a good reason, Pastor said. Maybe the executive team is working on a project they are not telling anybody about yet. Depending on the conversation with Jim, Anne's next step could be to develop a staffing strategy for her team or to look for another job.
3. (a), (b), and (c) "There are a lot of problems here," Pastor said about the scenario. Susan may have to consult with HR or the legal department before she does anything. Provided Susan has done so and is free to manage the conflict, Pastor recommended a three-step process.
First, Susan should call Ray into her office, listen to his side of the story, tell him to stop his behavior, and give him a warning. She may also want to document the conflict and her actions, Pastor said. If Ray doesn't change his behavior, Susan should put him on a performance improvement plan and monitor the results closely. If Ray improves, Susan may want to assign him a mentor. If the conflict persists, Susan should let Ray go based on poor performance improvement plan results. In addition, scheduling the whole department for personal skills training as part of the conflict management process is not a bad idea, Pastor said.
4. (a) and (c) A policy on tiered working hours should be implemented to clarify expectations and prevent misunderstandings. Next, Harry should track what Bob and Jerry are doing while they are working—how long it is taking them to complete tasks and how well the tasks are done—to determine whether Bob or Jerry needs skills development training. This training would be part of Bob's or Jerry's professional development, Pastor said.
5. (b) and (c) The size of an organization makes a big difference in how this conflict is managed, Pastor said. At a large company with thousands of employees, the CFO can tell attendees at the next division or corporate finance department meeting to "just cut it out," she said, because the gossip will eventually die out. But at a small company or not-for-profit with a few hundred employees, "you want to nip this in the bud," Pastor said. "The CFO needs to kick it up to executive management."
In a not-for-profit with 400 employees, Sally should check with HR whether sexual harassment training can be made mandatory and, if it can, suggest this step to the CFO. Next, Sally should ask the CFO to get the executive management team involved in getting the word out to all parts of the organization that the gossip must stop.
6. (b) and (d) "There are many employees out there who have been 30 to 40 years with a company and love when new technology comes on board or are very open to learning more," Pastor said. "This is not a generational issue. This is a personality issue. The employee who has been with the company for 30 years either has always been inflexible or has become inflexible." Amanda should talk to John and Samantha separately, confirm the changes in the department are necessary, and ask each what he or she needs to make them happen. Then, she should bring John and Samantha together and have them talk to each other. Waiting for John to retire is not an option. "That could be another 10 years," Pastor said.
If you answered all six questions correctly, congratulations. You have excellent conflict management skills.
If you answered three, four, or five questions correctly, you're on the right track. Continue to build your knowledge about managing conflicts.
If you answered fewer than three questions correctly, consider working with a coach to brush up on the processes with which to manage common conflicts between peers or within reporting hierarchies. Conflict management skills are a core competency in auditing, risk management, and compliance-type work.
—Joan Pastor (firstname.lastname@example.org) is CEO and founding partner at JPA International.
About the author
Sabine Vollmer is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at email@example.com or 919-402-2304.
- "How to Start and Run a Mentoring Program," March 2014, page 34
- "Eight Habits of Highly Effective Audit Committees," Sept. 2007, page 46
CGMA Magazine article
"Still Learning: CEOs Want Coaching on Leadership," Aug. 7, 2013
"Manager Survival Series: The Chronically Late or Absent Employee," CPA Insider, Dec. 7, 2015
Communications: Methods and Applications for Financial Managers (#PCG1301P, paperback; #PCG1301E, ebook)
Transforming Your Role as Controller to Business Partner (#164200, one-year online access)
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