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Mediation Series Part 2: Ways Employee Mediation Could Fail

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Mediation Part 2: Ways Employee Mediation Could Fail

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series on mediating employee disputes. 
Part 1 takes a look at the various types of situations you might encounter
Part 3 outlines ways to resolve them successfully.


You know that commercial with the flying star, the music, and “The More You Know?” Think of that idea often while you’re digesting this series. Sing the tune to yourself if you have to, because when it comes to mediating employee disputes, knowledge is power.

Is It Really That Dramatic, Though?

An issue between 2 members of your team might seem petty and easy to solve at first glance. Person A always interrupting Person B during meetings has a simple resolution, right? Maybe not so much. While that’s how the conflict is presenting itself, its roots can actually run much deeper. And when the 2 parties are brought together to work out their differences, the real problem can come bursting through to the surface. 

That’s why, for you as a manager, stepping into the middle of a workplace quarrel can require every ounce of patience you can muster. It can leave you feeling drained — even if you do it well. And it may even challenge your belief in humans as rational beings.

Before you learn how to mediate disputes the right way, however, it’s important to recognize the wrong ways. Part 2 of this series focuses on one of the most common types of workplace disputes — 2 equally powerful employees who have not broken any rules but don’t get along — and lays out all the ways that efforts to mediate the situation can go south in a hurry. 

“Should We Tell the Boss?”

By the time an employee dispute has reached management, it’s usually been going on for a while. You may have noticed tension if 2 people stare daggers at each other during meetings or you heard passive-aggressive communication that involves them. But as often as not, you may remain blissfully unaware until a non-involved coworker gets sick of the drama and tells you. (Who doesn’t dread the email from an employee that says, “I think you need to talk to Tamara and Xaviar …” without much further explanation?)

Regardless of how you find out, though, your need to get involved in official manager capacity likely won’t happen until the dispute starts to approach its inevitable end. When one employee comes to you and threatens to quit unless you fire the other one, for example.

(To reiterate before we get into the nitty-gritty, this discussion is about a dispute, not a rule violation. If an employee says, “I am going to quit because he is sexually harassing me,” call your lawyer and your HR professional. However, if it’s more like, “I can’t stand seeing his face at work every day, and I will have to leave if he stays.” Then we’re still in dispute territory.) 

So what is a busy manager without a degree in psychology to do about 2 employees who can’t play nice?

How Not to Settle a Workplace Dispute

To learn what to do in these situations, it’s important to first learn what not to do. This section is also known as Easy Solutions People Always Try That Never Work.

DON’T: Ignore the Problem and Hope It Goes Away

A lot of managers probably hope that if they just ignore the problem, like they would a toddler having a tantrum, the problem will go away. It’s understandable to hope for this outcome, but the reality is that if left unsolved, some problems can fester and grow until half the company is on one side and half is on the other. Then you have a workplace episode of Survivor on your hands. 

Talk about a productivity killer.

DON’T: Tell Them to Resolve It Themselves

This is the “tough love” approach, where managers put the 2 employees in a cage room and tell them they can’t leave until they work it out. The desired outcome here is that the 2 employees will behave like reasonable humans, resolve their differences, and put whatever it is behind them.

The problem, however, is the false expectation that adults are reasonable. (Have you watched the news lately?) What usually happens in this scenario is that one of the employees storms out and quits, or they both dig in and you end up back at Situation #1.

DON’T: Force a Handshake

Sometimes, managers try a version of, “Hey you two, knock it off. I don’t care who started it, but I’m ending it. Shake hands and get back to work.” If you take this approach, you’re likely hoping that your bold and daring leadership will close the rift, and that putting them “on notice” will cause their defenses to vanish in a poof.

This is the equivalent of telling one kid that you don’t care who started the argument over the toy, but it’s yours now so say sorry and hand it over. The kids (read: employees) might outwardly comply, but you can tell from the huffs and puffs and side-eyes that the conflict is far from over.

Without real resolution, your employees will just keep kicking each other in the shins until one of them quits. And any other employee who witnesses the forced reconciliation will likely roll their eyes, unleash their sarcasm, and think of you as a crappy manager who probably doesn’t have kids.

DON’T: Be the Judge of That

Sometimes managers think, “I’ll put both people in a room and hear from both of them. Based on what they say, I’ll judge who is right and who is wrong, and that will be the end of it.” In this case, the manager is hoping that the person who’s deemed wrong won’t be a sore loser and the one who’s right won’t be a sore winner.

What actually happens in this situation is that your 2-person dispute now becomes a party of 3, because you joined the fracas as soon as you picked a side. The person you told was wrong will disagree, the person you told was right will gloat, and word will spread faster than news of the prom king and queen’s breakup.

(Note: In real life, being a judge is super hard. And when a judge is given a case where they know one side or the other, they recuse themselves for exactly this reason.) 

DON’T: Play Unprepared Referee

In other words, don’t try to both investigate and resolve a dispute in a single, 3-person meeting. You might prefer this method because you have things to do, and you’re hoping that a single, quick mediation meeting will make this thing you don’t want to do go away. You’re also thinking that you don’t really need to do pre-work for this meeting, right? 

In the words of everyone’s favorite officemate, Dwight Schrute — WRONG. What you think will end in a happy reconciliation complete with rainbows and unicorns is more likely to turn into a WWE match inside your tiny office. And guess what? You’re the ref. You’ll spend 80% of your time during this tussle saying things like, “Wait, stop. What?” and “He said … oh, you didn’t?” and “What did you say then … well … wait, what?” and “Stop, hold on.” and “Are you sure?”

Here’s hoping no one throws a chair.

Up Next, How to Do It Right

While it’s fun to imagine how workplace disputes might blow up, it isn’t as much fun when it actually happens. Part 3 of this series will take you through the right ways to settle workplace disputes and emerge with your reputation (and office furniture) intact.

Related content:
Mediation Part 1: Defining and Diagnosing Employee Disputes
Mediation Part 3: How to Handle Employee Disputes
How to Fire Someone

If left unsolved, some problems can fester and grow until half the company is on one side and half is on the other. Then you have a workplace episode of Survivor on your hands. Talk about a productivity killer.

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