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Smoking out office disputes in Hong Kong requires expert help

Published on Saturday, 25 Jun 2016

The Case

Peter is a marketing manager at an advertising firm and has a significant client base. However, he is a heavy smoker and smokes in his office with the window open, even though smoking on the premises is illegal. Annie is secretary to Winston, the owner of the company. She vehemently voiced her objections to Peter’s smoking habits and complained directly to Winston that the second-hand smoke posed a hazard to her health.

Annie’s complaints led to further personal attacks against Peter in other matters. As a result, Annie and Peter refused to talk to each other. The relationship between them was so disruptive that it spread throughout the office, affecting other employees whose daily activities brought them into contact with either person.

Winston faced a dilemma as Peter and Annie were both indispensable to the firm. Annie had served dutifully as his secretary for almost 20 years and the two had built a strong bond. Peter was a high performer and one of the company’s biggest revenue generators. Winston was reluctant to take any aggressive steps to discourage Peter from smoking in his office, lest Peter resign.

Peter adamantly refused to stop smoking in the office and complained that Annie had bad-mouthed him and exerted adverse influence on other colleagues. The conflict split employees into two camps. Some of the staff who took Annie’s side threatened to lodge an official complaint with the Department of Health’s Tobacco Control Office or even contact the media, which would cause great embarrassment to the firm.

To avoid escalating the situation, Winston talked separately with Peter and Annie about resolving the issue through mediation. At first, Annie was reluctant to do so as she had little faith that the outcome would cause Peter to stop smoking in the office. Peter was also hesitant because he thought that the outcome would not be in his favour. However, neither wanted to put their job in jeopardy or enter legal procedures, so they eventually agreed to try.


The Mediation

The mediation took place outside the office, as offices are often inconvenient grounds for confidentiality and objectivity.

During the process, Peter and Annie communicated directly with each other for the first time in months. The mediator encouraged both parties to voice their perspectives and difficulties in order to uncover their respective interests, needs and concerns.

In doing so, Peter and Annie had a chance to understand each other’s perspectives, as well as the impact of the disruptive working environment that they had created.

A breakthrough occurred when Annie disclosed to Peter that her family had been plagued by lung disease for generations. She admitted that she may have been a bit disrespectful about Peter’s smoking habits, and burst into tears during the session. Peter also apologised, saying that he had been self-centred and oblivious to the needs and concerns of the people around him.

Both parties were encouraged to explore possible options to re-establish harmony in the office.


The Conclusion

Avoiding workplace conflicts completely is almost impossible. Not every serious employee dispute, however, needs to end in court.

Companies need to be aware that mediation can be a useful alternative to legal action, and they must understand the role they play in facilitating the process.

HR managers must carefully evaluate the situation and consider whether mediation is the best choice for them.  They need to take into account the individual personalities of the disputants, the number of disputants involved, the company culture in the face of adversity and the potential for lasting positive change.

It is important to get full support from senior management. To do this, HR managers must first have a thorough understanding of the mediation process, which should include the advantages and disadvantages when compared to other dispute-resolution methods, potential outcomes based on past cases and expected timeframes.

Disputants’ support is also essential as there is no guarantee that the parties directly involved will be comfortable talking informally and openly about the dispute. The process must be clearly outlined to disputants and the potential benefits highlighted. Every party’s commitment to taking the procedure seriously and seeing it through to its conclusion must be secured.

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Smoking out office dispute requires expert help.

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