NEW YORK — When four of Zach Hendrix's staffers couldn't get along or even speak to one another, he tried talking, cajoling and negotiating with them. But nothing worked.
He couldn't fire any of the staffers — they're too critical to the success of GreenPal, a business that helps homeowners find lawn care services through an app and a website.
So, Hendrix tried a novel approach: He formed a soccer team including the four workers.
When employees of a small business can't get along and maybe even despise each other, the discord can threaten a company's productivity and existence. Key staffers could quit in frustration. And with a low unemployment rate — 3.7 percent in the latest Labor Department report — and shrinking labor pool, owners can't afford to lose their best workers. Thinly staffed small businesses are especially vulnerable if a key employee leaves, so it becomes incumbent on a boss to look for a solution when there's ongoing workplace animosity.
Hendrix, co-founder of the Nashville, Tennessee-based GreenPal, considered alternatives like allowing one or more staffers to work remotely or relocating their workstations to different places in the office. But that wouldn't have gotten to the root of the problem — these staffers, whom Hendrix calls "high-performing yet headstrong," didn't want to work with each other.
But after they started playing soccer together, they developed respect for one another and learned how to be better colleagues.
The team even finished second in its league.
Workplace animosity that goes beyond the occasional disagreement can have a variety of causes including personality conflicts, jealousy over salary and assignments, a stressful atmosphere in general. An owner should start searching for a solution by listening to staffers and taking their feelings seriously, even if the boss doesn't agree with their point of view, says Rick Gibbs, a consultant with the Houston-based human resources provider Insperity.
"You need to be validating it rather than saying, 'get over it,'" Gibbs says. "Even if you've got enough to do, you should be understanding what pushes the buttons of these people."
Miscommunication can be a factor in ongoing disagreements, especially when staffers email or text rather than talk; the lack of body language and other non-verbal cues for workers to interpret leads to misunderstandings. As Dave Lane learned, getting staffers to sit down and talk can help.
Lane, CEO of employee survey company Inventiv, didn't know there was a problem until "my top designer comes into my office on the verge of tears saying, 'you need to go deal with this jerk.'" The "jerk" was a top developer, whose emailed responses tended to be terse and gave the impression that he was a cold, rude person. Lane persuaded the staffers to meet one-on-one.
"Half an hour later, the designer came back to my office to let me know they had a great talk and would start relying more on face-to-face meetings or phone calls to share ideas whenever email conversations stopped feeling productive," says Lane, whose company is based in Nashville.
Owners often must act as mediators or facilitators. When ScaleFactor's staffers didn't get along, David Felderhoff met with them separately, so they could speak freely. He's aimed at being empathic, but also honest.
"I'm going to give pretty candid feedback so they can understand where their perspective might be unhealthy for them," says Felderhoff, an HR executive at the accounting software company in Austin, Texas. He then encourages the staffers to find a way to work out their problems.
When a small business client asks HR consultant David Lewis for help with warring staffers, he'll sometimes ask the employees to take a personality test to help him — and the staffers themselves — understand their behavior.
"If you can raise their awareness about different personality styles and how to work together, you may have a greater level of success" in resolving the situation, says Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, based in Norwalk, Connecticut.
Some conflicts may occur because of the ambition and drive that make a staffer a top performer, Lewis says.
"They're strong personalities and they are looking to be top dog and favorite child," he says.
And sometimes the friction comes from a philosophical disagreement, for example, over how work should be done; staffers may be heavily invested in getting things done their way. Come in with an open mind is the advice for owners from Craig Vanderburg, chief operating officer of Trion Solutions, an HR provider based in Troy, Michigan.
"If you're on a predetermined side, you're not going to work it out," he says.
Gibbs, the consultant, has worked with owners who encouraged what's known as creative tension — bosses believe that conflict pushes staffers to work harder and come up with better ideas and results. But creative tension doesn't make staffers feel safe, Gibbs says.
Carolyn Barbarite believes in prevention — hiring employees who understand that part of their job description is being a team player in a small office.
"It's important that the people doing hiring are in tune to how people are going to get along and assess that prior to making the hire," says Barbarite, who owns two companies, a coffee sweetener maker named Javamelts and a flag pole manufacturer called Pole-Tech, in Smithtown, New York.
But there have been times when staffers were unable to work together. If Barbarite can't help them find an amicable solution, or staffers aren't willing to give ground, she's willing to fire them.
"They don't play nice in the sandbox, so they can't stay," Barbarite says.