“Helen’s been bullying me for the past 2 years and I want to raise a grievance”. Jim, Bob’s manager, went pale at the mention of the ‘B’ word and thoughts of endless investigations, team splits and distraction at a critical business time. “I know” thought Jim, “I’ll get HR to sort it – it’s a people thing”.
The names have been changed but this is a real situation in which I mediated between Bob and Helen. When Jim initially approached HR they suggested he try to deal with it informally himself. He tried but didn’t get very far. Bob was still heading down the grievance route and produced several pages of printout from a spreadsheet on which he had documented the individual instances of alleged bullying over the previous 2 years. The HR Manager spoke to Bob and Helen and recognised that the situation was not clear cut and she suspected there was misunderstanding on both sides. She suggested mediation but both were reluctant.
Bob wanted a proper investigation and for Helen to be disciplined for her treatment and Helen felt she had done nothing wrong so why should she mediate. The HR Manager referred the case to me and I arranged to meet individually with Bob and Helen. Having listened to their stories and explained to them about mediation, they both agreed to try it though they were sceptical that it would achieve anything.
The mediation went very well. Helen was shocked and upset to hear how her behaviour had been interpreted by Bob and that it had caused him so much hurt. Bob realised some assumptions he had been making were baseless and was also surprised to hear that some things he did were difficult for Helen. What we uncovered through the course of the day was that they had very different personalities (Bob was an intense and private person, whilst Helen was much more social, enjoying banter and gossip). They realised there was a lot of misunderstanding, miscommunication and that their job roles were overlapping causing them to think each other was ‘pinching’ the others work. Bob went away happy that Helen had not been bullying him and both had positive actions they could take. Part of their agreement was to jointly sit down with the manager and sort out their job roles so they were clear on who had responsibility for what.
It was a good outcome for mediation, but actually it should never have got that far. If manager Jim had been trained to spot the signs of conflict and then had the confidence and competence to intervene it could all have been nipped in the bud, avoiding two years of stress for Bob. It could also have easily ended up as a formal grievance had not the HR person recognised mediation as worth trying first. Had the case gone to grievance, much time and effort would have been taken up, generating cost and distracting from the teams objectives. It would have polarised the positions between Bob and Helen as each tried to fight their case, and it is unlikely that this would resulted in a clear cut answer for either of them. Thankfully this was avoided and Bob and Helen were able to rebuild their working relationship after the mediation.
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