Workplace Mediation - Case Studies

Science meets business …

Mike was a brilliant academic scientist who had patented a number of inventions in bio-technology, with the potential for huge benefits to society in the treatment of disease. Through his university, venture capitalists were brought in to create a start-up business, and they appointed Adam as an experienced, smart, professional managing director - somebody who made businesses happen.

Mike and Adam were not getting on. Mike had made his area of science his own and wanted to control his inventions. He was also anxious to ensure that they were exploited in an ethical way. But, brilliant as he was, he was not a businessman and could not do it on his own. Adam for his part felt he could not function if Mike was to check and understand everything, and he felt constrained by Mike’s conservative assessment of business risk.

The mediation process enabled each to reflect on the other’s distinctive abilities. Mike in particular was able to recognise that perhaps he did not need to control everything and could trust in Adam’s expertise. It became clear that both were excited about the inventions and about making the business work.

The mediation gave them both a forum for acknowledging the importance of each other’s roles. They were able to agree ground rules for the future about responsibilities and communication, and the discussion moved very easily to both parties looking forward to the next steps. Each said that he felt an immense sense of relief that the air had been cleared.

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How to run a wholefood shop ….

An employer running a chain of wholefood shops called in the mediator to help with a poor working relationship. Fiona managed one of the shops like a community venture, in a warm and friendly way – she was motherly to the customers and liked a chat, and she introduced tables where customers could eat their croissants with a drink. Sue was a younger corporate sales manager who was under pressure to deliver sales targets and thought Fiona’s lax way was not working. Then, in response to the company’s new business strategy, Fiona had taken three weeks’ holiday in Australia.

It became clear in the mediation that Fiona’s laid-back style was not such a bad thing – the shop was making a profit, and was not after all meant to be a supermarket. Fiona explained to Sue that the trip to Australia had been for her father’s marriage to his new wife, which was a source of great unhappiness in the family. Fiona had been (and still was) positive about making a go of the new targets, but had felt that everything was happening, both in work and outside of it, without any recognition of her perspective. She was enthusiastic that some of her ideas about customer focus might be spread more widely across the organisation, and Sue thought this could improve the brand.

There had been poor communication between two very different personalities. The mediation process enabled them to hear each other properly and to agree on a productive way forward, which was what they both wanted.

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The spectre of racism …

Mary had been told by Brian, her manager, that she might be made redundant along with others in a large public services organisation. In response she put in a grievance alleging racial discrimination, and was supported by her trade union.

This created an organisational log-jam. Mary was on sick leave and Brian had not managed to talk to her. The employer and the union both took the allegations of racism seriously and had to deal with them. Meanwhile the redundancy procedure was stalled. The employer and the union, like two huge battleships in mid-ocean, where lining up for a fight.

It turned out that Mary felt she had been backed into a corner and felt very resentful and hard done by. She was sure that the employer was racist, but ultimately could not pinpoint any evidence of racism against her. The union had a broader agenda, against institutional racism. Brian for his part was at a loss to understand Mary’s reaction.

In the mediation the hostility on both sides fell away. Talking to the mediator, Mary was able to air her grievances, and then said that she might actually prefer accepting redundancy to staying on, since she could take the redundancy money and manage with another part-time job, while helping to look after her grandchildren. It became apparent that Mary herself had not been treated in a racist way, and she wasn’t really saying that she was. Her union rep was a bit shamefaced about this, but still felt that the redundancy criteria might in practice be weighted against minorities, and that was something the employer should look at.

Ultimately all that was needed to resolve the problem was a chat between the individuals concerned. After initial positions had been taken by both sides and concreted into place, proper communication between those concerned had become impossible, until the mediation process enabled it to happen.

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Behind the scenes at reception …

Nabeela and Cheryl were as different as two personalities could be – Nabeela quiet, reserved and home-loving, Cheryl a good-time girl (although over fifty), loud and excitable, the life and soul of every after-work drinks party.

When the mediator arrived to see them at the blue-chip company where they were receptionists, she found them in the grand reception area at either end of a huge reception desk, as far away from each other as it was possible to be.

What had led to this? Cheryl had been promoted to reception manager but could not handle the responsibilities, partly because of her husband’s ill health, and was moved back down to the reception desk. Others had commiserated but Nabeela said nothing. Cheryl interpreted Nabeela’s silence as hostility. After that their lack of co-operation with each other led to mix-ups on handover at reception, including one where an important client was kept waiting an inordinate length of time because a message was not passed on.

Then Cheryl organised an outing for the six receptionists to a wine bar, to include a male strippergram. Nabeela declined to go and Cheryl said, “The trouble with people like you is you just want to do your own thing”. Nabeela didn’t know whether or not this was meant to be racist, but it upset her.

These things were addressed in the mediation. Cheryl was embarrassed at having to give up the manager’s job and said that Nabeela thought she was a “daft cow”. But Nabeela said she didn’t think that at all - she hadn’t intended any hostility, and hadn’t said anything because Cheryl was older and Nabeela (who hadn’t been there all that long) didn’t know her well. On the contrary Nabeela admired Cheryl’s resilience through difficult times, and appreciated that she could be very generous. Cheryl acknowledged that her remark about the strippergram evening was wrong and apologised to Nabeela, but she had just said the first thing that came into her head.

Having cleared the air, Cheryl said in the mediation, “Well, we could go out to lunch”. There was then some awkward clarification needed, because Cheryl had still not taken it on board that Nabeela really wasn’t keen on socialising at work.

The written document which they both signed included a specific agreement to remember that they were each very different people. They were also able to agree practical details about how to manage handovers. In addition Nabeela was to teach Cheryl a few essential things on the computer, which Cheryl was really pleased about. At the end of the mediation they were both laughing together about some of the things that had happened.

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