Member of the Family and Commercial Interest Group of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre’s Hong Kong Mediation Council.
Seeing red: Accountants’ argument requires a balanced approach to workplace relations
Two accountants in the same firm came into conflict. One of them, “Anson”, was an experienced consultant with some clients of his own. He was good at networking and marketing. The other, “Bobby”, was less experienced and without his own clientele.
The two accountants had been friends for some time, and Anson had invited Bobby to join the firm with the permission of its owner. At the time, he agreed to share his clients with Bobby, in return for Bobby’s help in handling his cases and clients. This allowed Anson the opportunity to solicit more clients in the China market, which was developing at the time. Anson also agreed to equally share his new clients from China with Bobby.
Bobby, however, found that after joining the firm, he was able to develop his own client base – which grew rapidly – rather than rely on Anson. He told Anson that he wanted to abandon their agreement. Anson angrily accused Bobby of breaching their verbal contract, destroying his plan and the trust between them.
Anson insisted that Bobby honour his promises and threatened to file a law suit. Bobby, in return, accused Anson of having misled him, since he now felt that Anson’s original plan was unrealistic. Bobby also argued that Anson should be considerate of his responsibility to his family, which meant that he could not afford the risks that Anson could.
Over time, their grudge escalated and the owner of the firm, “Chris”, intervened in his capacity as a mediator.
Before calling both parties to a meeting, Chris met with them individually. He knew that his role as a mediator was to prepare each party for a group meeting, explore their underlying concerns and help them reach agreement.
In these initial meetings, Anson and Bobby voiced their grievances and Chris acted as an active listener. Chris found that neither party had prior experience in forming partnerships, nor had they fully disclosed their needs when discussing the plan, in the fear that their concerns could affect their working relationship.
After listening to each party, Chris gleaned some insight on the dispute.
Anson was frustrated that Bobby expected their joint venture to generate an income that was immediately large enough to meet Bobby’s financial needs. Anson expected Bobby to know that every new venture involves a certain degree of risk, which both should accept before entering into the agreement.
Anson heavily relied on his relationship with Bobby as the basis of their agreement – as most Chinese people tend to do – but Bobby was more pragmatic, and believed that business is business when it comes to the bottom line.
Chris explained to both parties that the mediation was a voluntary, private and confidential process, and that he would not impose a settlement plan.
He then encouraged them to negotiate a settlement in a group meeting. He assisted the parties in setting up ground rules regarding their behaviour during the process. They agreed to respect each other and refrain from interrupting each other. No degrading words could be used.
In the meeting, both parties respected the mediator and followed the ground rules. For the first time since their dispute, they were able to sit down and discuss solutions to address their disagreement in a rational manner. Anson began to accept that Bobby might not be a suitable partner for implementing his plan.
Bobby realised that he had not been honest enough when communicating his needs and, with the encouragement of the mediator, apologised to Anson.
In conclusion, Bobby agreed to return all clients to Anson, and went on to pursue a career at another firm.
Anson decided to remain at the firm and develop his career there, and postponed his plan until he could find a more suitable partner. The two men maintained their friendship after their dispute was resolved.
This case demonstrates that mediation is often the most effective means for dispute settlement in a workplace environment. To make use of this method when conflict arises, employers should pursue mediation training, or make use of professional mediators.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Finding the balance in accountants' dispute.