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Confrontations are always awkward, but never more so than in the workplace.

Whether it’s a spat between staff or an angry customer, nobody comes out of such an argument intact. The reputational damage to your business can be significant, and the disharmony between employees can linger and grow over time.

In an ideal world, you want to avoid confrontations in the workplace entirely. But should the worst happen, it’s also important to have a strategy and processes in place to manage them, and mediate between the two parties. Here’s a rundown of the dynamics of workplace confrontations, and how to address them in a way that strengthens your business. 

Why workplace confrontations happen 

Confrontations in the workplace can generally be split into two categories: customers and colleagues. Customer confrontations tend to result from negative experiences on behalf of customers, who then take their frustrations out on front line personnel. However, they can also be initiated by staff as a result of misunderstandings, or simply not treating the customer in a manner befitting the business. 

Colleague confrontations occur when relationships sour between coworkers, and tensions boil over into full blown arguments. These tend to be less spur of the moment than customer confrontations, with issues often simmering just under the surface, and being apparent well ahead of time. While this makes them easier to resolve in some senses, they can also be more complex, and more destructive in terms of their impact on your business’ operations. 

Both kinds of confrontation often occur due to or are exacerbated by a lack of appropriate training. Most confrontations with customers could have been avoided were the customer treated better somewhere along the line, or can at the very least be defused before they garner unwanted attention. Workplace confrontations meanwhile tend to be the result of poor communication, inequalities within the workplace, or standards not being properly applied.

How confrontations affect people

Confrontations with customers or clients have obvious repercussions, both in the moment and after the fact. The immediate impact is to jeopardise the relationship with that customer, although it may not be salvageable under any outcome. But the impact beyond that can be on people who overheard the confrontation, or from the way that confrontation propagates out onto the internet. Recorded clips of fights or arguments can gain traction and end up damaging your brand, as can negative reviews left by disgruntled patrons or clients.

Confrontations amongst colleagues are more insidious. The dynamics of the relationships between both involved and uninvolved parties can change drastically, causing discomfort, anger and distress. All of this can negatively impact employees’ ability to work effectively as a team, and affect their general mood and productivity. The failure of the business to intervene or address the issue can also cause resentment towards the business itself, and the negative atmosphere this creates can lead people to seek other opportunities.

How to handle customer confrontations

Dealing with customer complaints and confrontations can be extremely complex. You obviously want to do your utmost to keep the customer on-side, and retain (or regain) their loyalty. At the same time, you have to know where to draw the line, and what you’re willing to put up with. The way you respond will go a long way to deciding how the confrontation plays out – and whether your business receives any fallout.

To some degree, the ability to quell a customer confrontation is innate, but there are ways you can improve how you respond, both individually and as a business. These include:

  • Having a process in place. Customer confrontations are difficult for staff to handle because they feel they are treading on eggshells, and worry that by saying the wrong thing, they may exacerbate the situation.

    Having a clearly defined process for handling customer complaints will give employees the confidence they need to deal with the matter appropriately, and where to draw the line when it comes to receiving personal abuse.
  • Customer service training. While drilling employees in the process for dealing with customer confrontations is helpful, it can quickly fall by the wayside during the stress of an actual encounter. Customer confrontations can be awkward and embarrassing, particularly in a setting where there are multiple onlookers, and this can make it hard to remember what to do, or execute it properly.

    Customer service training can address this both by improving the general knowledge and experience of staff around customer service, and through practical confrontation training. Staff with this training will have more experience to draw from if something unexpected happens, and feel more confident in their application of the process for dealing with confrontations.
  • Learning to listen. When customers confront you, it can often be difficult to look beyond the anger and frustration they are expressing, and get to the heart of the actual issue. While it’s often true that the issue doesn’t justify the intensity of the confrontation, that doesn’t make it illegitimate.

    It’s important to listen to the actual complaint that they have and understand their rationale before deciding what your response should be. Confrontations don’t always merit an apology – and the customer isn’t always right – but without listening to the problem, you can’t hope to fix it, or prevent it from happening again.
  • Good teamwork. Difficult customer confrontations can be more than one person can deal with. Sometimes, complaints are better handed on to a manager or someone who is more qualified to deal with them – but the very process of handing the customer over can cause further issues.

    Good teamwork and trust in your colleagues can help to crowdsource solutions to customer complaints, resolving them more quickly and completely. It also helps to establish who has the experience to deal with different kinds of problems, preventing confrontations from occupying more time and emotional energy than is necessary.

How to handle staff confrontations

Staff confrontations are no less difficult or awkward to address when they occur, but there are often more chances to avoid them. As you have much more control over the working environment, there are several steps you can take to defuse tensions, improve relationships, and make the workplace a more pleasant and welcoming place to work:

  • Encourage feedback. All confrontations tend to be a while in the making, but with customers, they may not all happen on your premises. With employees, by contrast, the majority of issues leading to a confrontation will happen at work. This presents ample opportunities to spot the issue, and if not, to afford those employees the opportunity to share and address the problem before it escalates.

    Giving employees an open channel to share concerns about their relationships with co-workers will give you the chance to clear the air, and fix the underlying issues. By empowering employees and making them feel confident that something will be done – be it disciplinary action, relocation, or relieving stressors such as high workloads – you can fix a problem while it’s still relatively minor, and improve the working environment as a whole.
  • Address complaints. Sometimes, a confrontation may only be the latest in a series of issues with an employee. Complaints may previously have been made about their behaviour, and either left unaddressed or dismissed. This may be because your business lacks an HR department, the HR department is ineffective, or because of a lack of trust or respect between employees and their supervisor or manager.

    Rooting out these issues and taking complaints seriously is vitally important, and not just to avoid confrontations. Employees who do not feel that their complaints are being taken seriously – or that poor behaviour by colleagues is not being addressed – are liable to perform worse, leave early, and diminish your business’ reputation. This has never been more important than in the #MeToo era, as cases such as the recent sexual harrassment suit against Activision Blizzard continue to demonstrate.
  • Equality and diversity training. Sometimes, confrontations are borne out of misunderstandings or culture clashes, and not something more malicious. In these instances, something may have been said, done or implied by one party that has accidentally offended the other, or been misconstrued in some way. What’s important in these cases is to be honest about it, and to address it in a sensitive but also direct manner.

Equality and diversity training can help to bridge these gaps, not just by informing individuals about common cultural differences, but helping them to better communicate with and understand each other. By opening dialogues in a respectful and genuine manner, employees can learn more about culturally sensitive topics, and change their behaviour to be more accommodating of others.

  • Hire smart. While this isn’t helpful advice for dealing with a staff confrontation, changing your hiring practices can help to avoid them in the first place. Staff confrontations should not be a normal occurrence, and getting into conflict in the workplace reflects a serious character flaw on the part of at least one person.

    Using tools such as psychometric testing and evaluations as part of your recruitment process can help to flag up problems before they have a chance to escalate. This should stop you from hiring individuals who may be disruptive, argumentative, or hold views that are likely to bring them into conflict with others.


Confrontations of either kind are never easy to deal with, and not something that is often going to reflect well on your business. However, they can also be a learning experience, and something that begets positive change. By taking the right approach and preparing for any eventuality, you can minimise the fallout from any public or private confrontations, and reduce the likelihood of them happening in the first place.

Help your team to tackle confrontation
with confidence

From uncomfortable customer encounters to tensions between colleagues, everyone experiences confrontation at some point. Help your team to handle those tricky situations with one of our customer service training courses. Whether you are looking to gain a better understanding of your development gaps or need bespoke training solutions for a particular challenge, we can help identify your options and the solutions available.

Contact us

Mark Fryer

28th June 2022

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