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What to do when staff can’t stand each other

Published on Wednesday, 31 Dec 2014

The Office Impasse

A communication breakdown can disrupt workflow and see projects delayed or even cancelled. Managers should consider mediation when colleagues can no longer work together professionally.

The Breakdown

When Ann joined her new company a temporary two-year contract with renewal for a further two years, she was assigned to work in a construction site office. In her previous job at a local manufacturer, she had worked under one boss as a secretary. Now she had to serve a team of eight engineers.

Due to the boom in large-scale construction projects in Hong Kong, the salary was competitive with good gratuities. Furthermore, the work location despite being a temporary office located on a roadside, was near her home so that it only took her about 15 minutes to reach the site office. 

However, the job was busier than her previous role and entailed mainly clerical duties. She had a good working relationship with the engineers, apart from Johnny, who accused her of intentionally putting little effort into his assignments.

He complained she was once late in calling a sub-contractor to visit the site office, which delayed the distribution of drawings, and that she left her faxing duties to after 6pm, meaning the sub-contractor was unable to keep up with events for the next day’s work. 

As the project was under a tight schedule, her actions led the project manager to order the site office manager, Teresa, to sort out the delay. However, Teresa was too busy recruiting workers and liaising with departments. She decided to ask a mediator for help. 

The Meeting

Teresa knew that mediation is a voluntary, confidential private dispute resolution process in which a neutral person helps the parties to reach their own negotiated settlement agreement. 

Ordinance Cap 620 enacted on January 1, 2013, provides a regulatory framework for promoting the use of mediation as a dispute resolution process and protecting the confidential nature of communications. 

Mediation in Hong Kong is a facilitative process in which the mediator assists the parties to identify the issues in dispute, explore and generate options, communication with them, and/or reach a settlement agreement as to the whole or part of the dispute. It prohibits disclosure or admissibility of mediation communications unless in exceptional circumstances under the ordinance or with leave of the court. 

Teresa invited Ann and Johnny to meet a mediator at his office. Both asked to have separate meetings with him beforehand. He agreed, as this would enable him to identify any barriers to the process and to come up with a strategy to deal with them.

At the pre-meetings, he realised the problem was a breakdown in communication due to heavy workloads. He decided to tackle this at their joint meeting.

At the outset, he asked Ann and Johnny to commit to the process  and not try to impose their solutions on each other. Both agreed despite their mutual dislike, but then proceeded to talk without making eye contact with each other.

The mediator summarised their opening statements and helped draw up a list of issues. These included how Ann should perform her secretarial duties within a specified timeframe; how Johnny would communicate his assignments to Ann; and how both would ask for help if they were unable to carry out their duties on time.

However, Ann and Johnny still ignored each other and only addressed their issues through the mediator. Seeing this as unconstructive, he persuaded them to ask each other open-ended questions until they got used to responding to each other.

 When these questions touched on their busy schedules, they both began to speak out about the difficulties they faced due to lack of time and support from colleagues. Then Ann said she saw Johnny as oversensitive, intolerant and complaining.

Johnny  reacted angrily, saying Anne had made him feel like a monster. He said he could not understand why she treated the other engineers better than him.

Ann burst into tears, saying she did not have time to serve the other engineers properly either, but they were more understanding and had taken the initiative not to bother her if she was too busy, or helped her out by doing the assignments themselves.  

The Breakthrough

This proved the breakthrough for the mediator, who helped them to generate mutually acceptable options between them. 

After several more meetings, they signed an agreement, which included a promise to meet for dim sum every month to discuss their problems.

Ann and Johnny’s communication problem was solved through mediation. If you have a workplace dispute, try mediation and leave the dispute to the mediator. 

Lily Lai is the honorary secretary of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre’s Hong Kong Mediation Council


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