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Can mediation work when harassment is alleged?

harrasment

A manager is considering disciplinary action

Lucy and Andrew are senior professionals in a small department within a major IT company.  Lucy reports to Andrew, but the relationship is an unhappy one. Andrew comes to Karl, the Head of HR, because he’s had enough of Lucy’s behaviour which he describes as difficult, negative, undermining and disloyal. He sees putting her through the Disciplinary process as his only option.

But Karl knows the damage that disciplinaries can cause if they’re used to manage relationship issues, and he suggests Andrew try informal dispute resolution first.  Andrew reluctantly agrees, and Karl arranges to meet Lucy to see if she’d try mediation.

The other side sees things differently

When Karl talks to Lucy, she immediately goes on the offensive: if Andrew had something to say why could he not come to her direct? If she had ‘done something wrong’ then Andrew could discipline her for all she cared. She was extremely angry and seemed quite prepared for a fight with Andrew. In explaining her side of things, Lucy makes several comments about Andrew including that he is ‘an old-fashioned sexist’ who ‘patronises her’, and who ‘can’t manage a strong woman but just wants me back in my box’.  She says Andrew ‘favours the other men in the team’ and ‘claims credit for her work’.

Is this still suitable for mediation?

Karl is concerned that, if Lucy was raising issues of gender and potential harassment, mediation may no longer be suitable. The company policies and procedures make clear that harassment won’t be tolerated.

Some managers are afraid to act while other managers over-react, when harassment gets raised.   Karl had done the right thing by responding, not reacting: he reflected on the pros and cons of each approach, and decided it was best to offer Lucy and Andrew the chance to talk directly about these issues; after all, they’d lose nothing by doing so, and had a great deal potentially to gain.

Lucy made it clear to Karl that she just wanted Andrew to treat her same as everyone else in the team, she didn’t want him ‘punished’. But often people feel forced by procedures and policies into formal grievances when in fact their preference is to resolve difficult situations informally – so just because a harassment claim was possible, didn’t mean it was inevitable.

Karl felt, rightly, that Lucy and Andrew had the right to choose the resolution process. Because Lucy’s focus was on the future, and on change, mediation offered her a better chance of getting her needs met than would a process that focussed on the past and on the allocation of blame.

Mediation, unlike a grievance procedure, provided Lucy with the opportunity to address harassment early on, and to agree with Andrew on behavioural changes that would prevent it recurring or escalating – protecting both her and Andrew in the future.