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Turn bad times into a career opportunity

Published on Saturday, 20 Sep 2014
Vod KS Chan is vice-chairperson of the Hong Kong Mediation Council and co-chairperson of the council's Family Interest Group.

The Setback

A career change can come from unexpected events and circumstances, even from the depths of adversity. For one woman, whose life was turned upside down by divorce, finding a new career after being a full-time housewife for most of her adult life was looking to be a matter of survival.

The Recovery

The woman barely managed a faint smile when the jointly appointed family mediator handed her a copy of the settlement agreement after she and her then husband had finally managed to resolve their matrimonial disputes. Clutching it tightly, she left the room and met with her 12-year-old son, not knowing what lay ahead for this newly formed single-parent family of hers.

That was five years ago. Now, she runs a small boutique laundry business near her rented apartment, earning enough to make ends meet while supporting her son's education at a boarding school in London.

So, how did this recovery come about? It all started at the family mediation session, the first time she had talked face to face with her estranged husband to discuss their matrimonial disputes since they separated more than two years previously.

She wanted custody of the son, sole ownership of their matrimonial property and payment of monthly maintenance. After all, she had been a full-time housewife since their marriage more than 17 years ago, while he had a well-paid job.

"I am not paying you a penny," he said to her at the outset in the first family mediation session. She was aghast. Without his financial support, the bank would foreclose on the matrimonial property, her son's hefty school fees would not be paid and she would not be able to feed herself and her son adequately.

Throughout the family mediation, spanning months in many joint and separate sessions, it came to light that her husband had been sacked not long ago and had gambled away all the family assets. The only thing left was their jointly owned property.

"What can I do now?" she asked the mediator. "I have no financial means. I'm only good at washing clothes, which I learned from my father's family-run laundry business when I was young…"

The mediator advised her to explore her options based on her experience, which led to the idea of starting a small laundry business. However, she had no adequate financial resources to get the ball rolling.

They finally agreed to sell the matrimonial property and share the proceeds equally after many rounds of negotiations. She was able to use part of the proceeds to start her laundry business, find a smaller place to rent and pay for her living expenses with the remainder.

After five years of hard work, she is now back on her feet financially.

The Way Forward

The mediator not only helped a disputing couple reach an agreement, but helped one of their parties find a new career.

Like an HR manager gathering information from an exit interview to evaluate what can be improved or adjusted in an organisation, the family mediator was able to help both parties achieve a mutually agreeable settlement.

In cases where disputing parties' respective stances seem unreasonable, a mediator will look to create an element of doubt about their respective points of view and their proposed options are then closely scrutinised against the reality of their situations. The parties' separate interests, needs and concerns are weighed, and possible options are developed for resolving the disputes.

The woman's case highlights the need to find an alternative based on your existing skills when financial plans don't turn out as expected. Although she did not achieve all she had set out to win in the settlement - such as full ownership of the property and monthly maintenance - the fact that she lacked capital for the venture actually spurred her to focus on reaching an agreement with her estranged husband to sell their property in order to finance her business.

By following the mediator's advice to identify her skills and experience, she was able to draw on her time spent working at a young age in her family laundry to create a career plan, and was able to target what was needed to get the business up and running.

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