Thomas Ho is a member of the Construction Interest Group of the Hong Kong Mediation Council and the vice president of The Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors
Should all mediation be structured in the same way?
The Mediation Process
Those who have been involved in mediation may think that it is a highly structured process, comprising of the mediation agreement, opening statement, opening presentations, joint discussions, separate sessions, and a final agreement. In fact, mediation can be a flexible process.
Aimed at building consensus and agreement, mediation involves certain steps. It’s important for mediators to identify the interests of the two parties and explore the issues at stake in group meetings. In some cases, separate meetings with each party are required. To reach an agreement, common ground must be identified and options for agreement which are acceptable to both parties must be identified. Both parties should be allowed to express their frustration, anger or disappointment.
All these are important elements of mediation. However, do all these aspects really needed to be structured and strictly followed? This may not be the best approach when handling disputes in the workplace.
In workplaces, the common conflicts are mainly between colleagues in the imbalance or differences in workload, leave, salaries etc. To resolve these conflicts, the employers or the supervisors will normally be the mediators to resolve such conflicts. Some of them resolve the conflicts using the mediation process and techniques mentioned above but they do not realise that they have in fact carrying out the role of a mediator.
In a case that illustrates this point, an employer acted as a mediator to resolve a workplace conflict.
Two of his younger employees, A and B, were good friends who had studied together at university and joined the same company after graduation. Knowing that they were friends, the employer assigned them to the same team, but requested that they handle different projects. After six months, much to the employer’s surprise, A resigned.
My experience as a mediator has shown me that an employee will seldom tell his or her boss the real reasons for resignation unless he or she feels that the employer is a close friend. In this case, the employer had always treated his employees as though they were friends or family members. As a result, A treated him as a close friend and was willing to tell him the truth when questioned about his resignation.
A told his employer that he resigned because the projects assigned to him were of less value and complexity than those assigned to B. A felt that he was less important to the company than B was.
Since A had achieved better academic results at university than B, he felt justified in his belief that he was unfairly treated. In addition, A had heard from other staff members in the company that B’s salary was higher than his because B was of more importance to the company. Unbeknownst to A, their salaries were the same.
After listening to A’s reasons for resignation, the employer explained to A that their salaries were, in fact, the same. He also explained that A was assigned three simpler projects, while B was assigned a single, more complex, project, and thus both were being treated equally and fairly.
The employer also met with B to find out his views on the project assigned to him. In that discussion, B expressed the feeling that he had not been treated fairly because he was required to handle a more complex project than the ones A was dealing with. The employer similarly explained to B that he had balanced the number of projects handled by each staff member with each projects’ relative complexity.
The employer also arranged a barbecue at his house and invited all his staff. At the party, the employer took A and B aside to have a casual chat with them. After drinking some beer, the employer explained to both of them together the structure of the company and how projects were allocated. All misunderstandings between the two were cleared up and they became good friends again. The next day, A withdrew his resignation.
Although the employer was not a trained mediator, he nonetheless employed the techniques and processes used in mediation. These include building trust with employees by treating them as friends; treating all staff members fairly and equally; using private and joint sessions to discuss disputes; encouraging staff to express their concerns and grievances; and using a relaxed environment to resolve the conflict. These are all very important ingredients of a successful mediation and negotiation.
Workplace conflicts occur every day, in every company.
A good relationship between employers and staff members, with open communication, is important for maintaining harmony. All employers can be good mediators by using the mediation and negotiation techniques mentioned above.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Friends’ friction requires boss’s delicate touch.