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Mediation Series, Part 1: Defining and Diagnosing Employee Disputes

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Mediation Part 1: Defining and Diagnosing Employee Disputes

This series deals with the wholly unfun topic of mediating disputes between employees, so first, a little music: youtube.com/watch?v=H9TpJycsbBE
Part 2 deals with how not to settle an employee dispute
Part 3 gives ways to do it successfully.


Nothing brings a productive day to a screeching halt like hearing screeching coming from down the hallway as 2 employees get up in each other’s grills about whose turn it is to clean the grill. (Assuming you work at a place with a grill.)

Not All Disputes Are Created Equal

Whether workplace eruptions are petty or HR-worthy, managing them is a delicate art that requires calm, fast thinking, and the ability to see 15 sides of a story. Can you handle it via mediation? Is it something larger than you? The first step to answering this question is to figure out what kind of dispute you’re dealing with. Here are some of the most common:

Dispute 1: Rules Were Broken

What happens: One employee reports another one for breaking the rules.

How to approach it: This type of dispute can be relatively easy to resolve. Why? Because an employee who is mad because they got caught breaking a rule is not a dispute. It’s a temper tantrum, and good managers treat it that way.

When a rule violation report is treated as a “dispute,” it gives license to the violator to excuse, pretend, ignore, and defend, skirting the core issue — they broke the rules.

The right course of action here is to deliver consequences that are in line with stated company policies and move on. If they can’t let it go and try to continue to fight, harass, or “discuss” it with the person who reported them, you might want to read up on how to fire someone.

Side note: If the employee who did the reporting was a jerk about it, that’s a separate problem to be handled separately, one on one with said jerk.

Dispute 2: Employee Complaint About Manager

What happens: An employee comes to you with a complaint about their direct manager.

How to approach it: Due to the inherently inequitable power balance, these types of disputes will not be resolved by mediating between the 2 parties. Here are 2 ways it can present itself:

First: “I am being treated differently or held to a different standard than others.” Different treatment can be a serious issue, especially if the employee believes it relates to their race, gender, or sexual orientation. If this is the case, please stop reading this article and speak to an attorney instead. EEOC complaints are way outside your scope as a manager and may even require outside investigation.

If the employee simply believes that their manager doesn’t like them, or always gives them the worst customers, your first step is to examine whether this is reality or just their perception. And it’s important here to really dig and ask questions — especially ones that start with “why.” If it’s true that this employee always gets the worst customers, for example, why? Is it because they’re the best on the team at making unhappy customers feel better? In that case, the solution might be as simple as training their manager on giving positive feedback, or helping to train other employees to learn the great skills that lead to success. It’s not really fair to always give one person all the bad customers, no matter how skilled they are at managing them!.

If you ask around, though, and find that the employee’s coworkers all disagree with their assessment and you can’t find any evidence to back up their claim, a good first step is to reset expectations with the complaining employee. Here’s an example of how that might sound: “I reviewed your claim and found no evidence for it. What I expect is that you will behave in XYZ manner and that’s part of your job description,” etc.

The second version of a supervisor complaint goes like this: “My manager is an idiot.” Or “They don’t listen to my suggestions.” Or “We’re working inefficiently.”

Tread carefully here too, as an allegation of incompetence can be serious. The upside is that, in many cases, employees simply don’t understand what their managers are expected to do, and you already have much better information than they do about their manager’s role and performance.

For example, what looks inefficient to an employee might be a manager doing necessary safety work to ensure nobody gets hurt. What looks like a manager ignoring input might be a manager focused on meeting existing quotas and targets.

In many cases, manager complaints can be diffused by explaining and demonstrating to the employee the purpose of the manager’s actions, and by coaching the manager on explaining their actions and responses. (Not just saying “no,” for instance, but explaining why: “Thanks for your suggestion. I hear you’re suggesting XYZ. That’s something we tried before you were hired, and we had outcome ABC, so we’ve taken that one off the table.”

If, on the other hand, you *don’t* have good performance metrics on your managers (tsk!), this might be the canary in the coal mine that you have a problem. Go check it out and see what you find. You might be about to replace a manager.

Dispute 3: Manager Complaint About Employee

What happens: It’s the opposite scenario from #2 above — a manager comes to you with a complaint about someone on their team. These often sound like: “They don’t respect me!” Or “They don’t listen when I give them assignments!”

How to approach it: This is not a dispute, and it does not require mediation. A manager’s job is to give their employees a safe and successful environment that helps them produce results (see the article from our manager series about how to improve employee productivity). If a manager is coming to you to complain about their reports, then they need mentoring and coaching on how to be a manager. You do not need to get “between” the 2 parties or try to solve the problem for them.

Dispute 4: 2 Employees Complain About Each Other

What happens: Coworkers don’t get along, see things differently, or otherwise can’t play nice together.

How to approach it: The vast majority of disputes are between 2 employees, neither of whom has any professional power over the other. It could be 2 entry-level employees, 2 managers, or even 2 SVPs, but the key is that they have equal footing within the company.

The first step here is to make sure that it’s a legit dispute vs. a rule violation, as in the first example. Disputes sound like this: “They always talk over me during meetings.” Or “They never follow up on my RFPs fast enough — other employees always get theirs filled faster.” Or “I told them to call me as soon as my package arrived in the mail room, but when I went down at the end of the day it had been sitting there since lunch.”

What All Disputes Have in Common

Despite their origin story, many disputes are likely to escalate far past the original conflict into recriminations, defenses, counter attacks, and ultimately end up with clear moralizing. For both parties, it’s black and white. They are wrong and I am right. 

It can be a real mess.

After you’ve figured out what kind of dispute you’re dealing with, the next step is to dive into the mediation. Part 2 in this series covers how to do this.

Related content:
Mediation Part 2: Ways Employee Mediation Could Fail
Mediation Part 3: How to Handle Employee Disputes
How to Fire Someone

It's important here to really dig and ask questions — especially ones that start with “why.”

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