Career Advice Legal Case studies for employers

Tempers flare from internal transfer request

Published on Saturday, 29 Nov 2014

The Call for Mediation
 Workplace conflict is common and often unavoidable. Conventional forms of resolution such as litigation and tribunals are usually costly, involve many people and are time-consuming. Outcomes of “right or wrong” or “win or lose” can fail to satisfy either party or provide a long-term resolution. 

Mediation is an alternative method that is cost-effective, time-saving, convenient and flexible. It encourages parties’ voluntary participation and is confidential. Led by an impartial mediator, each party can express their views and feelings about the dispute and get to understand the dispute from the other party’s point of view.

Mediation emphases flexibility and encourages parties to have open and honest discussions. 

Parties have the freedom to set the agenda to be discussed, generate options that can satisfy both parties’ needs and expectations, and help address their interests rather than their positions. Once the settlement agreement is reached and signed by both parties, it becomes an enforceable and legally binding contract.

The Misunderstanding

Simpson had been at a well-known surveying firm for three years. The company was divided into different business units and teams. His main duty was doing property valuation for Team A. Being a fast learner, hard-working and able to complete tasks independently, his consistent performance won him the trust of his supervisor, Shirley.

Recently, he learnt from his colleagues that there were two immediate vacancies in Team B. He saw this as an opportunity to broaden his surveying experience and advance his career. He approached Team B’s supervisor Brian, who encouraged him to apply for one of the posts. 

Shirley was very angry when she returned to the office after two weeks’ holiday and heard about Simpson’s application to transfer. 

She believed Brian was trying to poach one of her staff. She approached HR immediately to complain about this sudden staff movement and rejected Simpson’s transfer request. 

Brian did not want to ruin a long and healthy working relationship with Shirley. The HR manager, who was an accredited mediator, suggested Brian and Shirley try mediation. 

The Meeting
Both agreed to a mediation meeting outside of office hours. Brian told Shirley he urgently needed more staff as one of his team was on emergency medical leave, while another had left at short notice. His team also needed to start work on two new projects worth a total of HK$2 million within the month. 

Shirley said she felt disrespected as she was given no notification of Simpson’s move until she returned from holiday and heard about it from her subordinates. She felt Brian should have notified her immediately.

 Brian admitted he was remiss in handling the case, as he had been too busy deploying staff to meet various project completion dates. He further recognised Shirley’s management and leadership skills and said she was a very good team player. 

However, he argued that staff deployment and promotion are important in keeping capable staff and maintaining operational flexibility. He added that Simpson had acted on his own initiative to apply for the transfer to broaden his work experience. 

The mediator asked Brian and Shirley to consider what would happen to Simpson after his transfer was rejected – would he still want to stay on at the company, and if he left, how would that affect staff morale and efficiency?

The Outcome
Brian recalled Simpson had promised him he would try his best to serve Team B. Whenever possible, he would help Shirley’s team in training new staff, and didn’t mind staying late to tender his assistance when needed.

Both parties agreed Simpson’s transfer should go ahead, but he would spend a week with Team A to hand over his duties to other staff and he would back up the team if needed during his three-month probation at his new team.

Through mediation, Shirley’s hidden agenda (needing respect from colleagues) and interests (keeping Simpson in her team) were addressed. Brian’s immediate staff shortage problem was also solved.

Simpson won a chance to prove his abilities and competence and was subsequently promoted to senior officer after his three months’ probation.

Whether you have a long term relationship with your counterpart or no relationship at all, it is important to understand how to manage conflict and negotiate for success.


Beginla Yue and Herman Fong are members of the Hong Kong Mediation Council’s general interest group