High noon at the watercooler
Jayne Fuller and Emily Sargent were in senior creative positions in a magazine publishing house, but Fuller was going out with the boss. Sargent arrived, appearing glamorous, intelligent and altogether fabulous. Fuller felt ousted and threatened.
“I just couldn’t cope with it. I felt so alienated,” Fuller says. “She was the one they all loved and would turn to because she was funny and clever, whereas I was the grumpy one who everyone hated.”
Sargent admits: “Jayne was the most temperamental person in the office and people pussyfooted around her because she was going out with the boss and because she was the creative director with the licence to throw toys.”
Gather a group of people together, insist they spend large amounts of time in a confined space, then just sit back and watch human nature deal with the rest. The rules of Big Brother apply similarly to the office environment—still the standard backdrop of a regular working life—where we spend more time with strangers (initially) than we do with our friends and family.
Hardly surprising, then, that disputes between colleagues are integral to office life. Disputes are the meat and drink of HR departments: whole reams of employment law are devoted to them, thousands of pounds are thrown at their desired resolution—and they drive people insane.
But in the end, Fuller and Sargent sorted out the dispute themselves. Fuller says she woke up to the fact that things had to change when Sargent announced she intended to resign.
“It just hit me and I thought, ‘this is insane.’ So I just said to her that I was really sorry and I thought that all of the tension had been caused by the fact that I was extremely jealous of her.”
Sargent says Fuller’s “disarming honesty” won her over. “If it were not for the fact that one of the two conflicting parties shattered the wall of conflict I don’t think it would have been resolved,” says Sargent. Both are now firm friends, having left the company (and Fuller the relationship with her boss) some years ago.
The Uk government, realising that the current four-year-old system of statutory dismissal and grievance procedures is costly and unwieldy, will, from April 2009, replace it in favour of informal mediation—that unfashionable notion of getting people to talk to each other rather than dragging everything through the courts. In February Acas (UK industrial conciliation agency)—a largely government-funded organisation—was given GBP37m to help prevent workplace disputes unnecessarily going to employment tribunals. Acas is beefing up its advice helpline which, from next April, will point out to callers that they should try mediation as it may well be cheaper and better for all concerned. If they fail to heed this advice, Acas will conciliate at disputes that look set to become tribunals.
“By the time issues get to tribunals it’s generally too late,” says Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. The existing system of dispute resolution, he believes, requires all managers “to play every conflict by the book, watch their backs and do things that would stand up in court rather than settle the case.” Once statutory rights and employment tribunals are involved, protagonists are obliged to polarise their positions in order to win a legal settlement—not exactly an outcome conducive to mutual resolution.
Emmott has just completed a how-to guide to workplace mediation, which typically involves a neutral third party or mediator bringing two opposing individuals together, encouraging them to air their views and then trying to find some mutual agreement.
It’s good news for private workplace mediators and there are already calls to introduce a system of accreditation.
However, mediation is often tried too late, only after a formal grievance procedure has taken place rather than before, says Liz Hine, director of Mediation at Work. Hine recently mediated at a dispute between manager Amanda Edwards and housing support officer Jess Wilson at a hostel for young homeless people. Wilson had already been subjected to disciplinary action which resulted in her suspension.
The nub of the problem appeared to be a personality clash between two entirely different individuals. “We’re like chalk and cheese,” explains Wilson. “We’ve got very different working practices and I just didn’t feel as if she liked me very much and I suppose that got my back up. We were locking horns and never got anything sorted out.”
Wilson didn’t feel her suspension was warranted and thinks her manager, Edwards, was “fed a lot of gossip from colleagues which wasn’t necessarily true”. A protracted battle ensued which, in the end, they hammered out during a day of mediation.
“Mediation isn’t going to change your whole personality,” says Wilson, “the problems are still going to be there, but it’s about dealing with them.” It did, however, give them a space to open up honestly, with Hine acting as an impartial referee.
During mediation Edwards learned that Wilson wasn’t the self-confident adversary she imagined. “Although she appears confident she doesn’t feel confident,” Edwards says. “We gained a better understanding of each other and I probably got a better insight into myself. One thing I learned is to nip something in the bud in the initial stages.”
For mediation to work, both parties need to be both honest and constructive. “It can be quite difficult,” says Wilson. “Nobody likes criticism.” She thinks a few more sessions would have helped them reflect and become a bit more open. “But it has drawn a line in the sand. My relationship with Amanda is not as strained as it was.”
Although better, relations are still a little raw. “I hope it settles down,” says Edwards. “I think sometimes we just need to get on with our work as opposed to being concerned about whether the person we have sat next to has offered to make us a cup of tea.”
Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Keddy, a London police coach and mediator, agrees that in many cases, an honest conversation at the watercooler might avoid the march down to HR or the courts. “In most places there are shelves full of policies and protocols but it can be a case of cracking a nut with a hammer,” she says. “I believe that organisations will be held accountable if they can’t show that mediation has taken place and some tribunals might start to penalise them.”
A little DIY goes a long way, agree primary school teachers Nigel Cullen and Sarah Thompson who fell out over sandwiches versus hot dogs at their school fete. According to Cullen, Thompson wanted the fete to be about maths. “I wanted to have a hot dog stand and she insisted there wasn’t any maths in that.” Sandwiches were considered to have greater potential for the weighing and measuring of ingredients than hot dogs. “The worst thing was, she said the kids should bake their own bread. I said, ‘No, I’m not doing that.’ So she went to the head, who agreed with her. We sold about two sandwiches, to staff who felt sympathetic.”
Eventually the two agreed to put the sandwich scenario behind them after agreeing to talk their differences through and resolve them—although Cullen insists he’s going to do it his way next time.
NOTE: names have been changed
Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2008