- Leonard Berkowitz
Updated April 2013
Employment conflict is a term often used loosely by employees, but its more technical meaning refers to conflict that is about one or more of the types of legally prohibited discrimination: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or handicap. One other type, discrimination for union activity, is not generally thought of as employment conflict but as a form of labor-management conflict.
This concept is important to employees and managers alike. Because who has what rights in this area is itself a matter of considerable continuing political conflict, this concept is important also as a matter of general citizenship.
An employment conflict often arises when an employee claims that someone else, who has similar skills and experience, is being treated better by the employer, and that the reason can be traced to one of the legally prohibited forms of discrimination. It is not necessary that the link be immediate or direct. At the same time, an employment conflict does not necessarily arise just because persons of differing races, genders, etc., have a dispute at work: many such disputes on a day-to-day basis arise over personal issues, and are not really based on legally prohibited discrimination. Employment conflict is thus distinguishable from workplace conflict, in which the fact of conflict in the workplace is the defining factor, rather than the legally "prohibited or permissible" cause of the conflict. Most employment conflicts involve an individual who disputes some type of decision of an employer, but a significant number involve groups of employees.
Sally, a member of a legally protected group, loses out in a promotion and believes the decision was traceable to legally prohibited discrimination. Her employer answers the complaint by showing that Sally lacked certain training necessary for the higher rated job. But if the employer failed to make the training available on equal terms for a reason related to race, sex, etc., the employer is still vulnerable.
Discrimination does not have to be proven for employment conflict to be extremely disruptive in the workplace. Differing cultural expectations make it quite likely that the same action will be perceived differently by people of differing gender, race, religion, color, handicap, national origin and/or age. An understanding of how employment conflict arises, and of what the mechanisms are that best help parties deal with it, is therefore important not only to managers, but to first-line supervisors and employees.