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Co-workers arguing in the office

Arm yourself with a mediator

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Jeremy Lim, a consultant at the Singapore Mediation Centre, shares how companies can benefit – and be more productive – with mediation.

It’s war between PR and IT at the Singapore office of the multinational Shootfirst Corporation.

It all started with a little dispute between Steve, an entry-level PR officer, and Bill, the IT service counter manager. Bill said that Steve had lost a company laptop and wanted him to pay for it. Steve refused, claiming that he had no idea he was responsible for the laptop. Soon, Bill’s boss stepped in to criticise PR for its lax attention to workplace security, while Steve’s colleagues unleashed a storm of emails complaining the IT department had turned a deaf ear to their tech enquiries.

The battle lines were drawn. Employees spent work hours digging up old emails to use as ammunition against the other side. By the time top management stepped in to enforce a settlement, precious man-hours had been lost. Worse, office morale was at an all-time low. IT was forced to order a new machine, messing up its budget. PR was banned from all work-from-home arrangements. Everyone was miserable.

Surely this could have been avoided, wondered Sheryl, the local HR manager.

Mediation, the first-stop damage-control manoeuvre

What Shootfirst Corporation needed was mediation, a negotiation process where the warring parties worked out their own mutually beneficial “peace treaty” with the participation of a neutral third party to manage the negotiation process.

In this alternate scenario, HR got wind of the dispute and roped in the company’s legal adviser to mediate a closed-door session between the two parties. It soon emerged that IT was most concerned about balancing its accounts. On the other hand, PR knew it had lost the laptop, but had a bone to pick over IT’s chronic unresponsiveness.

With everyone’s priorities on the table, the mediator helped the parties forge a win-win settlement. PR paid for the laptop, while IT acknowledged its poor response to emails and promised to communicate better in the future. In addition, PR and IT agreed to have informal tea sessions once a month to help each department better understand the other side’s work and concerns.

After the incident, HR manager Sheryl found her office environment better than ever. IT and PR, two departments that had never seen eye to eye in the past, were now getting used to building their own solutions, rather than coming to her to complain. And because they were resolving matters themselves, no one could point fingers at her for being biased.

Nip it in the bud

While mediation can be a powerful tool, HR managers need to know that it is most effective as a pre-emptive strike, not a weapon of last resort.

For the best results, integrate mediation into your initial SOP for dealing with disputes. Work things out early before tempers flare and the matter escalates.

This means that at any time, you already need to know who you can call upon to act as mediator.

It pays to be prepared. In any organisation with people of diverse talents and working styles, conflict is inevitable. Arm yourself with the ultimate peacemaker: the mediator.

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