Claims of inappropriate conducts calls for mediation
Harmonious workplace relationships are essential to the success of a business, whether it is a small and medium-sized enterprise or a multinational corporation. However, the cold, hard facts are that conflict is an inherent part of employment relationship, and workplace issues such as harassment, poor communications, conflicts over work performance, payments and attendance, can develop into employment disputes with serious legal and costs implications if they are not dealt with promptly, fairly and consistently.
HR Professionals and managers often find much of their valuable time spent on relationship difficulties and conflict situations between staff. The introduction and promotion of a wider use of mediation to resolve workplace conflicts could be an effective way to resolve sensitive workplace conflicts.
Let us look at how mediation is being used successfully to deal with workplace conflicts from the following case.
A woman working at a multinational corporation lodged a complaint with human resources against her new department manager, claiming he tried to take advantage of his authority and touched her inappropriately by patting her on the shoulders and back on several occasions.
She claimed he had also used provocative language towards her.
The manager said the allegations had been grossly exaggerated, were totally unfounded and relate to recent ongoing conflicts between him and the woman regarding her working attitude and performance.
The woman had been working for the corporation for 15 years and was still very keen to stay at the company.
The manager was a bright and very dedicated employee, and regarded as a rising star in the corporation. Both were valued employees whom the corporation did not want to lose.
The HR manager suggested both parties attempt mediation conducted by a trained and impartial third party to help them reach an amicable settlement.
It was understood that participation was voluntary and confidential. If no settlement could be reached, both parties could pursue other avenues to resolve the issues.
Indeed, both did not want the issues to turn into a full-blown dispute, and agreed to try mediation.
During the mediation session, the two parties were not obliged to agree on what had happened before or who did what to whom. Mediation is not a process to determine who is right or wrong, nor is it a process to apportion blame, nor to punish a guilty party. The aim is to explore and identify issues and understand and empathise with the feelings of the others in a neutral and confidential setting.
This encourages direct and honest communication to find a solution that both sides consider fair and favourable.
Through using the joint-problem-solving approach, the mediator identified that what the woman wanted was for her manager to acknowledge that his behaviour had violated her boundaries (intentionally or not). The woman actually did not want the manager to be charged by the police nor to sue him in court.
During the mediation session, the parties were willing to express their views and feelings openly because of the essential element of confidentiality. The parties had also discussed and clarified their misunderstandings over the work attitude and performance issues.
After identifying the issues in dispute and the interests of the parties, the mediator then facilitated them through a series of joint and caucus sessions, to explore, reality-test and evaluate options for resolution and settlement, while taking into account the circumstances and constraints.
During the mediation, the subordinate understood that if no settlement could be reached at the mediation, she could report the matter to the police or the court. However, this would make the conflict public and might affect her job.
The departmental manager also came to realise he might have to become more “socially conscious”.
With the help of the mediator, the option was generated that an agreed set of rules of conduct in the workplace should be reached.
After the one-day mediation session, the parties were able to reach a settlement of the disputes, which had estranged them for several months. They were able to continue to work together for the corporation, and their relationship was repaired.
The company was satisfied that both valued employees were no longer bothered by the disputes, and that they had been resolved without affecting the operations and reputation of the corporation.
The settlement terms were then incorporated in the form of an agreement drafted by the mediator and signed by both parties. The mediation process and the settlement that was agreed have remained confidential.
The manager, his subordinate and the corporation were all happy that the process had helped to resolve the issues in such an efficient and effective way.
Workplace conflicts cause problems for employees, HR professionals and managers and their organisations. Mediation as a voluntary and confidential process enables disputed parties to resolve their workplace conflicts quickly and effectively, help rebuild and maintain their relationship, and thereby reduce the financial loss of the company arising from the disputes.
Mediators help conflicting parties to understand each other’s concerns and underlying interests and create options and plans for how they should get along well in the future.
Natalia Cheung is a member of the general interest group of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre’s Hong Kong Mediation Council.