“Hi, John. Nice tie.” We have the ability to take this one simple sentence and saturate it with meaning. I might think, “Why yes it is! You obviously have great taste.” Or, “What’s that supposed to mean? You think your tie is better?” Or, “Why is that person bothering to comment on my tie? Am I about to get bad news, and he’s just trying to break the fall a little.” Our attitudes have a starring role in workplace conflict. Conflict is often about perceptions, and the outlook we bring into the workplace can be a determinant in whether discord is allowed to take root.
A lawyer friend of mine recently sent me a link to a sarcastic piece on how lawyers should prepare to attend a mediation. Although it was funny and very clever, it strikes me as more than just a little “too true”.
When supervisors are promoted, they should have a subtitle under their new title: resolver of conflicts, great and small, which threatens workplace cohesion, productivity, and morale. Might be a bit long for a plaque on your door, but when you are promoted into a position of authority, one of your most critical responsibilities is managing and resolving conflict. The first step is recognizing that this is now part of your job description. Next up is figuring out how to get the issue handled and your team back to work.
“In an organizational hierarchy every employee tends to rise or get promoted to his or her level of incompetence.” Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.
Mr. Peter describes what many of us have seen – or even experienced – in the workplace. People are promoted until they can no longer do the job they are assigned, and there they remain. In my conflict coaching practice I frequently work with people facing this type of challenge. I have a more optimistic outlook than Mr. Peter. The outcomes for these people need not be so negative as becoming stuck in a position for which one is unsuited.
When you are ill or hurt, you talk about your concerns and symptoms with the understanding that your health care providers can’t go back home and tell their dinner party guests all about your issues. When you go to a lawyer, you need to have the opportunity to discuss strategy and details without fear of disclosure. If you go to confession, you need to know your spiritual leader isn’t writing a book about your exploits. Confidentiality is the cornerstone of many relationships, and it is also essential for a mediator.
There are two branches of confidentiality in mediation:
People choose mediation because it is a voluntary (in most cases), nonbinding process that does not affect their ability to pursue further legal action. These are important benefits of mediation, but they can also pose a concern. What if the parties do come to an agreement as a result of the mediation and one party does not hold up their end of the bargain? Does a mediation agreement amount to a “gentlemen’s agreement” or is it a legal contract?
It depends. I know we all hate that answer; what it lacks in clarity it makes up for in ambiguity. Here are some possibilities, though:
Mediation is a voluntary process; sometimes, though, “voluntary” can get a little murky if employers are “strongly recommending” mediation or, in fact, requiring it before other steps can be taken. Ontario, after all, does have “mandatory mediation.” So the question of who decides whether or not a specific issue goes to mediation is not a one-word answer. It could be up to any number of people: to the parties themselves, to the HR staff or to the liaison officer. It could be dependent on policies, or it may not even be mentioned as an option under company policy. The important thing is that all parties recognize that mediation is an option. More important than “who” decides is “when” it happens or gets suggested.
You’ll often find lists of tips for dealing with harassment at work. One that I recently came across advised that we take a “work stress inventory to identify” sources of stress and write a “joy journal to focus on what’s going right.” It can be hard to focus on the joy when someone is using offensive and/or threatening language against you or making your work life intolerable. You don’t need an inventory; you know where your stress comes from. But what you may not know is what to do about it. There is a solution that is often overlooked in the workplace: mediation. Can it work in harassment cases?
The mediation agreement plays a crucial role in the mediation process. It is a way of saying, “This is what we’re all doing here; this is how we have to conduct ourselves; these are the ground rules that we have to agree upon in order to make this work.” What goes into a mediation agreement?
Author Gabrielle Zevin has said, “I have so much paperwork. I’m afraid my paperwork has paperwork.” Most of us can relate. The point of mediation is to create an opportunity for parties to communicate and work towards resolving a conflict. Documentation is a part of it, but paperwork doesn’t have to overshadow everything. Is note-taking simply more paperwork that you have to complete in the mediation process?