The argument occurred around midnight. The man who was milking cows that night didn’t think the cow pusher was moving cows into the double-8 parlor quickly enough. They ex-changed words, and at least one of them came to the conclusion that he just couldn’t work with the other. So, he called the owner.

Upon receiving the call, Brian Staudinger’s first task was to calm the workers down and remind them that they had a job to do. They were in the middle of a shift and would have to deal with it — until everyone could sit down and discuss it in the morning.

At 8 a.m., Staudinger met with the employees individually. Then, he brought the two of them together for a face-to-face meeting, although he could see that they were still mad at each other. He did establish a cooling-off period, putting the employees on different work shifts for the next week to 10 days. Shortly afterward, one of the employees left the Reedsville, Wis., dairy to go back home to Mexico, which effectively ended the conflict.

Resolving a conflict between two employees is never easy. Here are some additional ideas on how to handle the situation correctly:

New approach

Usually, it’s the conflicts between workers and employers that get the most attention. But Gregory Billikopf, labor management specialist for the University of California, says a more common problem involves two co-workers who can’t get along. 

Based on extensive research, Billikopf has developed a new method of “caucusing” for solving these conflicts. Basically, it’s broken down into three steps:

  • Pre-caucus. The employer or manager meets separately with each party in the conflict — in the absence of the other party or parties. He listens to both sides and gathers information. Often, one party will be more open if the other party is not there, Billikopf says. “I have seen people who were supposed to be ‘silent types’ open up and talk freely,” he adds. As mediator, the dairy owner must be good at summarizing the situation and letting each person feel that he or she has been “listened to.”   
  • Meanwhile, during the pre-caucus, the employer or manager needs to assess the value of bringing the two parties together. Can either employee find any redeeming qualities in the other person? Do they have anything good to say about each other? If not, bringing them together may do more harm than good. But, keep in mind, some disputes are so deep-seeded that it may take additonal work to get the employees to see the positive side of each other. It may be necessary for the employer to arrange a second pre-caucus session with each employee individually to elicit a positive response.
  • Joint session. If it appears the contending parties can sit down together and talk about the issues at hand, the employer should arrange a joint session. The employer acts as mediator, helping the employees find common ground. But, in the joint session, the employer takes on a secondary role. The emphasis should be on letting the two employees talk to each other and finding mutually agreeable solutions. The employer should be there to help the conversation along if it appears that the employees are getting stuck from time to time.    

To learn more about Billikopf’s “caucusing” method, go to the following Web site:   www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/   (Once there, click on the “research” section, and then scroll down to “Contributions of Caucusing and Pre-Caucusing to Mediation.”)

Open communication

Sometimes, it is necessary to terminate the employment of one or more of the feuding parties, because situations will invariably arise where they have to work together.

Jon-De Farm in Baldwin, Wis., embraces a team atmosphere to such an extent that it would be difficult to keep two feuding co-workers apart for very long. Employees attend many of the same meetings, and many of them live together in a dormitory.  

Jon-De is fortunate in not having to deal with this issue in quite a while.

But there was an instance several years ago where two of the female employees couldn’t get along. One was a more aggressive personality, and the other could get aggressive when backed into a corner. During the conflict, the farm’s owners used an innovative approach to solving the conflict. They shared the results of personality testing with both employees; that is, the employees got to see each other’s test results. “They definitely had a better understanding of each other,” says Liz Doornink, one of the farm’s owners and president of Human Resources Services, a human resource consulting firm for other farms.

Bottom-line: It pays to keep the lines of communication open, if possible — both to minimize conflicts and resolve them once they occur.