When Personal Problems in the Workplace Become Everyone’s Problem

Written by John Curtis on . Posted in

When rust forms on a car and is left untreated, it metastasizes. Eventually, it eats away at the metal until the vehicle is no longer safe, and repairs are exponentially more difficult. Personal problems in the workplace can be equally corrosive. When left unresolved, conflict can spread, undermining morale, productivity, and profitability. In some instances, as in this one, threats of violence further erode the work environment.

The Challenge

Two long-time colleagues work in a difficult, high-pressure environment. While conflict was simmering for some time, it is brought to a head during one particularly incendiary incident: Co-worker 1 sets up a device to record Co-worker 2.

While Co-worker 1 is out of the room, Co-worker 2 makes jokes about his absent colleague, imitating his behaviour traits. After hearing the recording, Co-worker 1 becomes extremely agitated.

All trust is lost between the colleagues, and every interaction thereafter suffers. Disputes about minor matters explode into shouting matches. Each party sets out to malign the other to co-workers and point out mistakes to their supervisor. Everyone around them feels as though they have to take sides, and the workplace descends into acrimony and chaos.

One of the co-workers in question goes on stress leave, and the other is suspended as management considers whether or not to investigate him for allegations of violence in the workplace. Ultimately, they do not pursue the investigation for lack of evidence.


Problems like this do not resolve themselves, and it’s likely that they will worsen without intervention. To prevent this, the employer sets up mediation before returning these individuals to work. As mentioned, this is a difficult job, and each person had been exposed to trauma in their work. Through the mediation process, they learn of the personal problems each had been experiencing as a result of that extreme stress.


With this new understanding, both parties offer apologies without prompting by the mediator. This is a positive sign. They resolve to work together to help heal the rifts that their conflict has created in their working relationship, as well as in the workplace as a whole. To move towards that goal, they take the lead on a mediator-facilitated group session for all employees.

The worst way to handle conflict caused by personal problems in the workplace is to do nothing. It can devolve into a caustic and unsafe situation – for everyone. If the rust has taken root, it’s best to take quick action to keep it from spreading and undermining the entire workplace.

John Curtis

John Curtis is a successful lawyer with over 15 years’ experience in litigation focusing on Sport Law and Mediation Services. In addition, he is an expert in providing engaging, hands-on Conflict Resolution Training including Mediation Training, Negotiation Skills Training and Conflict Coach Training