Differences in what is considered acceptable behaviour are one of the main reasons for workplace conflict. Such differences might be cultural in a workplace where people of different nationalities and religions are employed. If differences are neglected, it can lead to accusation, distortion and, at worst, polarisation.
Mediation is one form of dispute resolution for workplace conflict. It can encourage the expression of views, bring about solutions and enhance mutual understanding. However, due to the sensitivity of workplace relationships, the mediation arrangement should be extra conscious of confidentiality, joint and individual sessions, and how the agreement is executed.
After completing her master’s degree, Brenda moved to Hong Kong to join her parents, who were working here. She found a job as a manager in a local trading company. A few weeks after joining, Brenda filed a complaint to the human resources department for harassment by her colleagues, Michael and his teammates. She stated that she heard them expressing negative comments about the way she dressed. The comments got increasingly critical and also included remarks about her figure.
Brenda felt upset and helpless. She told Michael to stop gossiping about her and demanded respect from him. She also pointed out that no one criticised her clothes and style in her home country.
After she made her feelings clear to Michael, the working relationship between the two began to deteriorate. Brenda would arrive at and leave the office at different times to avoid as much as possible direct contact with her colleagues. In work meetings, Brenda and Michael would criticise each other on numerous issues. Sometimes, meetings would break up in discord. Brenda began to take more sick leave. Staff in the human resources department reported the situation to their manager, Julia. She decided to resort to mediation to resolve the dispute between the two colleagues.
In the first few individual sessions, Julia tried to understand the background of the dispute and what outcome each party expected. Brenda told Julia that, in her home country, she was used to dressing casually and no one cared about it. She emphasised that she did dress formally when she had meetings with business partners. Brenda directly asked Michael to stop the negative comments about her clothes but to no avail.
Arguing that Michael’s behaviour might be construed as sexual harassment, Brenda wanted Julia to make it clear to Michael that his behaviour was inappropriate. For his part, Michael thought that Brenda’s dress sense was too revealing and inappropriate for a local company. He argued it embarrassed male and female colleagues alike.
Most colleagues only gossiped among themselves rather than draw Brenda’s attention to it. Michael did however acknowledge that he had adopted an aggressive manner to Brenda. He hoped a guideline or dress code could be established to lay down standards for all staff.
Brenda and Michael agreed that their cases were being heard. They were ready to resolve the dispute and talk to each other openly. Julia arranged the first joint session for them to talk directly to each other. At the start of the session, each explained to the other the reasons for their behaviour and their expectations of how the dispute might be resolved.
Julia helped both parties to see the other’s point of view and set up an agenda for mediation. Firstly, Brenda requested an apology from Michael for his criticism and an admission that such practices could lead to sexual harassment in the workplace. She then agreed to a discussion on establishing a company dress code.
In the second joint session, Michael made an apology to Brenda. The human resources department decided to set up a working committee to establish the dress code and both Brenda and Michael would be on it. They would also both attend a training session about cultural diversity in the workplace.
In recent years, many multinational enterprises have started to embrace diversity and inclusion in the workplace. A diverse workforce brings with it the need for understanding and accommodation. Conflict resolution and cultural sensitivity are essential to handling workplace disputes. Mediation can help the parties to understand cultural differences and address the needs of employees from different cultural backgrounds.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Mediating in a workplace culture clash.