Question: After a brief return-to-work honeymoon among employees — where everyone was happy to see each other after a long year — we are now experiencing some serious conflict. 

It started after one employee begun objecting, loudly and frequently, to our social distance and masking rules — we don’t require vaccination but those who aren’t vaccinated must wear a mask. Then another employee became particularly defensive of the rules, and other employees started taking sides. Now we have two factions and a tense workplace, to say the least. What can we as the employer do to help everyone follow the rules and get along?

Answer: Sounds like you are describing our divided country.

A friend of mine and I were lamenting the other day that people in general (at the store, down the block, on the TV) seem to be more willing to make a scene. Fear of embarrassment used to keep people from being rude, but not anymore.

The workplace is a microcosm of society, so we may be seeing some of this seeping in. Luckily, unlike society at large, employers can define how they expect their employees to behave in a workplace setting.

If behaving professionally and respectfully was the expectation prior to the pandemic, there is no reason this should change.  In fact, I would say, it is more important than ever to maintain decorum at work since everyone is so stressed and on edge.

So what can you do with the two factions — one who wants to follow the rules and the other who has a problem with the rules?

Here are a couple of suggestions:

One is to employ Conflict Resolution techniques, which include getting the two sides together to talk and find common ground; getting both sides to articulate the other side’s positions, etc.  This can take some time, much patience, and skills.

The other (and quicker) way is to play hardball about consistently enforcing the safety rules. What would you do if an employee “loudly and frequently” objected to wearing a hard hat, or putting on their seatbelt, or wearing safety goggles?  It’s unthinkable that they would be given a choice or wiggle room on following those safety rules.

The same should go for masking and social distancing.  And while you should listen to valid input and concerns from those who object, once you set down your rules, they should be followed. If they are not, the consequences should be a similar discipline to breaking any other safety rule.