Career Advice Legal Case studies for employers

Promotion pass-over fuels prickly passions

The Issue

Frank served his company for several years and received positive feedback from colleagues. His promotion prospects were good, but his career path was blocked when a less-qualified candidate, Bill, was appointed by the overseas office as his supervisor.

Frank accepted the arrangement politely, but became less cooperative. Bill began to dislike Frank, who frequently argued with him. Frank had a small circle of allies among his colleagues who also disliked Bill. A once-quiet office became a battlefield.

The Meeting

Bill was unaware that Frank's feelings were hurt by being overlooked, and considered him a troublemaker. He began to delegate Frank's duties to other staff members to avoid arguments, but this thwarted Frank's ambitions as he was hoping to gain as much work exposure as possible at the company.

One day, the tension escalated into a verbal fight in the department. Afterwards, Bill and Frank both went to the human resources department to lodge a complaint against each other.

In a workplace conflict or dispute, it is common for the HR manager or department head to interview the parties separately to try to persuade them to resolve it. In this case, the department head arranged a meeting with both Bill and Frank in the presence of the HR manager.

The protagonists soon began criticising each other, causing the department head to lose patience and express his dissatisfaction with both. Cowed, they shook hands and agreed to cooperate, but both left the meeting feeling dissatisfied.

After the first month, they were quiet and cooperative. After the second, they had a few small arguments. After the third, the situation had deteriorated, with arguments and even worse fights in front of colleagues.

Frank could no longer take working with Bill and decided to resign.

The Mediation

Not willing to lose a valuable member of staff and realising the issue was not resolved, the HR manager decided to invite Frank and Bill to try mediation.

Mediation is a voluntary, non-binding, private dispute-resolution process in which a neutral person, the mediator, helps the parties reach their own negotiated settlement agreement. The mediator has no power to impose a settlement, but must try to overcome an impasse and encourage the parties to reach an amicable settlement.

Frank, who had studied mediation during his master's degree, was happy to try it, but Bill was unsure and would have preferred to never see Frank again. However, he decided to go along with it for the sake of his team.

They signed an agreement stipulating that the communications and discussions would be kept confidential. It is important to note that if the dispute had been handled by the department head and HR manager, it would have been unlikely or impossible to sign such an arrangement.

The venue could have been anywhere agreed by the parties - at the mediator's office, the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, or elsewhere. The benefit of having an outside venue is to enable the parties to communicate freely, and not be easily disturbed by other staff entering the room on unexpected or urgent matters.

The mediator started with his opening statement, followed by Frank's and Bill's. The mediator summarised their statements separately and ground rules on courtesy and respect were agreed on. They established an agenda with a list of issues to be discussed.

The agreed issues included those they had no chance to talk about before. The session proceeded with a break taken when things became too heated.

Frank and Bill expressed their likes and dislikes, discussed their academic background and management styles, and then focused on their feelings.

The mediator later conducted separate meetings with the parties, and in a second joint session, the parties voiced their concerns and expectations.

When Frank told Bill of his dashed hopes for promotion, the supervisor realised he had nearly lost a good staff member. They began to talk freely and agreed to have regular chats to avoid further misunderstanding.

The Conclusion

As Bill and Frank's experience illustrates, and research has shown, workplace mediation is highly effective in resolving disputes, and can improve the conflict management skills of line managers.


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