Mediation Part 3: How to Handle Employee Disputes
The hard truth of mediating workplace disputes is this: Sometimes it won’t be successful, no matter how you go about it. Sometimes one party is simply too dug into their position and will not budge. It might feel like you’re in the real-life version of The Zax by Dr. Seuss. (If you haven’t read it, go check it out. Keep it on your office bookshelf. Maybe make your 2 quarreling employees read it. Because an employee who refuses to “step aside” — to acknowledge fault or attempt to find common ground with another employee — is going to be toxic to your organization in other ways.)
How Disputes Are Born
Despite all the hurdles that come with mediating employee disputes, mediation can be successful. (Notice we didn’t say easy.) The first steps are to understand exactly what a dispute is and how it arises.
A dispute begins when one person thinks another person has violated their expectations and failed to make amends for their violation.
That’s a heavy sentence, so let’s break it down and show some examples. When someone violates your expectations, they’re doing something to you that you consider to be rude, inappropriate, inconsiderate, gross, disgusting, or otherwise just not cool.
Here are some real-life examples:
When you check out at the grocery store, you expect the person behind you to leave a reasonable distance between carts. If that person turns out to be a checkout line tailgater, they have violated your expectations.
If you’re eating at a restaurant, you expect your table to be your personal space. If someone reaches over from the next table to take your ketchup without asking, that’s a violation of your expectations — they should ask their server for ketchup if they need it, not steal yours.
Finally, if you’re giving a keynote presentation and someone in the audience is loudly talking on their cell phone, that violates your expectation that attendees will be respectful and quiet while you’re speaking.
How Disputes Grow
A violation becomes a dispute when the other person fails to make amends for what they did: If, in the supermarket, you say, “Can you please back up so I can unload my groceries?” and the person stays put. If, in the restaurant, you say, “I’m using that ketchup,” and the response is, “Then you better ask for more.” If, during the presentation, you say “Please take your conversation outside so the others can hear,” and the person starts talking louder.
Outside the workplace, disputes usually have the space to fizzle out. At work, though, there’s no escaping the person on the other end. It’s like sitting next to them in the restaurant where they stole your ketchup every single day. And even if they never do it again, you’re still mad about their failure to own what they did.
Meanwhile, there is a good chance that the other person feels *exactly the same way about you*. They believe that it is you who has violated their expectations and failed to make amends.
Your cart pusher, for example, expects you to unload your cart from the front so they can unload theirs from the back at the same time. It’s the more efficient way, and they’re in a hurry, so your refusal to do so pisses them off.
Your ketchup stealer expects that no one is possessive over their condiments. They think you’re way too uptight for not laughing along with them.
Your keynote cell phone talker expected you to ignore him, and especially not to call him out in front of his colleagues. He thinks you think you’re better than everyone else.
Depending on how long the dispute has been going on, there can be many layers of broken expectations. “He didn’t apologize, so I didn’t assign him the profitable job,” “He didn’t bring the truck back on time, so I hid the keys in the coffee pot,” “He didn’t give me my mail, so I didn’t. …”
It can be like 2 vastly different versions of the same Greek myth by the time it hits your desk, and your job is to unravel it.
This isn’t the only path to resolution, but one way to try to calm the wildfire is to schedule 3 exhaustive meetings. First with each person individually, then with both parties together. Yes, it’s time-consuming. Yes, it will make you want to go home and have a martini. But it’s also the best chance for reconciliation. Here’s a breakdown of how each meeting should go:
Meetings 1 & 2: The Individual Meetings
When you meet with each person individually, your job is not to be a judge, but rather a reporter. You’re not going to decide in this meeting who was right or wrong. (Spoiler alert: It’s neither.) Instead, you’re going to unpack and understand all the expectations this person feels that their coworker has violated.
The main goal is fact-gathering and taking notes on what the employee says, but you’ll need to look out for what the employee isn’t saying. Use active listening, ask follow-up “Why?” questions, and watch their body language for clues to what’s really going on. Because most times, the root of the conflict is not that Jane left the coffee pot on again.
To get official statements, ask each person to list all the incidents that have occurred since the dispute began. Typically, the situation has been going on long enough to have between 2 and 5 distinct incidents.
Starting with the facts and remaining objective, journalism-style, is a great technique for lowering the temperature in the room. Once you have their side of the story, you can take them through this series of questions.
- What are your emotions? How do you feel about all this?
- Do you believe that you behaved admirably in every respect during each interaction?
- How do you think the other person might see this situation?
- Do you think there are any grounds for you to apologize?
You can guess that some of these questions will lead to “the rest of the story,” including the parts where they weren’t, in fact, a perfect angel victim of uncontrollable circumstances. This is important because it sets the stage for the group meeting.
Once you have their side of the story, ask them to please come to the next meeting with workable solutions and an open mind. Then, finally, ask them to forgive themselves.
Cue record screech.
“Forgive thyself” might seem a little New Age-y for a corporate conflict, but it’s actually a psychological tactic. How so? Because focusing inward takes the wind out of their sails. It also brings their own less-than-stellar behavior to light, and if it’s really successful, they might decide to skip the group meeting altogether and just apologize privately vs. having to do it in front of you.
Hashtag manager goals.
Meeting 3: The Group Meeting
This meeting isn’t going to be fun, for any of you. But the best way to avoid any meltdowns and keep it moving is to create a strict agenda and stick to it. It can look like this:
- List the incidents as you understand them, and get agreement from both parties.
- Present each person’s perspective from an emotional standpoint: “When XYZ happened, you felt … . Is that right?” Always get agreement.
- Ask each person for a few actions they would like to see the other one take. For example, ask for a report to be delivered a day earlier than it has been to provide more time for review. Get agreement, if possible.
- Offer each person the opportunity to apologize for any part they think they played.
- Do your part to offer solutions based on what you’ve seen and heard. Emphasize each employee’s strengths, and be tactful about weaknesses.
- Move on. (This doesn’t need to involve a handshake, but this should mark the definite end of this dispute on pain of disciplinary action.)
- Make notes after the meeting is over so that you have a reference point if the mediation doesn’t work.
Pushing Through the Tough Stuff
If this sounds intimidating, that’s because it is. Especially if you’re the conflict-avoidant type. There are some tactics you can use throughout these meetings, though, to keep the panic attacks at bay.
- Run a tight ship, and keep it formal. Pretend you’re hearing a real court case.
- That said, remain calm and empathetic.
- Lay out the ground rules and expectations for the meeting.
- Demand that each person be allowed to speak without interruption. Otherwise, pick your battles.
- Look for any common ground that can help the employees better relate to each other.
- Don’t let anyone leave the room without agreement on the issue and commitment to making changes to fix it.
- Get everything in writing, and get signatures on any formal agreements.
The ultimate goal with this process is to get both parties to see that they’re a participant in the conflict vs. just a victim, and it usually works. If you run into a situation, however, where one party continues to beat the dead horse, check out our article on how to fire someone.
It can’t be said enough that this doesn’t always work. But if you follow these steps, understand your role in the conflict, and hold each party accountable, you will have done everything possible.