Career Advice Legal Case studies for employers

How beer and barbecue resolved a crisis

The Go-slow

Conflict resolution can come in many forms – even in the guise of a few shared beers at a barbecue.

Over my 30 years of experience in the construction industry in Hong Kong, mainland China and Australia, I have come across workplace-related issues which, in hindsight, could have been amicably resolved more efficiently had an experienced and independent mediator been brought in to undertake the resolution process.

I recall an incident that happened several years ago in which, for no apparent reason, the productivity of a group of highly experienced construction workers dropped dramatically to be only on par with their less-experienced colleagues. Their project manager initially thought this could have been caused by the implementation of more stringent safety measures and the need to wear extra protective clothing.

Despite several months of discussions with the workers and introduction of various motivation and incentive schemes, their productivity remained unimproved. Eventually, the project manager found out that the reason was the deteriorating working relationship between the workers and the foreman in charge. The workers felt the foreman continuously treated them with disrespect and had threatened them with losing their jobs. They had decided to simply adhere to the standard output.

In his defence, the foreman said the problem was simply a communication issue and he had no intention to show disrespect to the workers, let alone intimidate or threaten them.

The Resolution

Subsequently, the differences between the workers and the foreman were resolved over an on-site barbecue evening in which the project manager explained the communication issues between the two parties.

Harmony was eventually restored following the foreman’s apologies over a pint of beer. All parties were relieved that the grievances were resolved before they led to an industrial action, such as the 36-day Hong Kong bar benders’ strike in 2007.

The Mediation Option

With hindsight, this workplace issue could have been settled sooner, if a mediator had been engaged to take the lead from the beginning.

Conflict is an integral part of employment relationship. This can be further exacerbated by organisations being involved in increasingly complex and robust businesses made up of employees of different backgrounds, expectations, opinions and sets of values. The preservation of a harmonious working environment is essential to the productivity and profitability of an organisation.

The Advantages

Employees undoubtedly are the most precious asset of any organisation. It is imperative therefore that employees’ grievances are settled as soon as possible, since the longer it takes to deal with them, the more likely they will result in loss of productivity and loss of morale when trust breaks down.

Whereas most companies prefer to resolve employees’ grievances through their HR departments, aggrieved employees may feel they are in a less favourable position in a negotiation or discussion, as winning their cases could mean losing their jobs.

An independent and impartial mediator encourages employers and aggrieved employees to sit down and deliberate the pros and cons of the potential consequences of their disputes.

Workplace mediation empowers employers and employees to take responsibility for the resolution of their issues. Other generic advantages of mediation in resolving disputes include confidentiality, voluntary participation, unbiased exchanges between parties, cost-effectiveness, procedural flexibility, preservation of relationships, avoidance of stress, and uncertainties.

A successful mediation avoids the stress of preparing for and going into the court or the labour tribunal, and costs substantially less than any other form of litigious or arbitral proceedings.

Stanley Lo is chairman of the Construction Interest Group of the Hong Kong Mediation Council, as well as a solicitor of the High Court of Hong Kong, a chartered quantity surveyor and chartered construction manager.