Rob Cairns - Conflict Resolution

Client Success Stories

The following case studies are conflict situations that were successfully resolved through my conflict resolution and mediation services. The specifics of each case have been altered to protect the confidentiality of those involved.

A Harassment Complaint Brought Against a Supervisor

The Conflict:

Two employees filed a harassment complaint against their common supervisor. This was the result of a decision the supervisor made to split them up at work, which they believed was based on unfounded gossip by their peers.

The two employees alleged that they were treated differently than other employees in that they were not permitted to work with each other. Further, they alleged that no explanation was given to them for this decision. In general, employees in this organization have some choice and are permitted to swap shifts and posts. The staff involved all had essentially the same responsibilities. In addition, these employees were concerned that their reputation with management might have been damaged by gossip without their being given an opportunity to defend themselves.

The Mediation Process:

The supervisor was not willing to meet with both employees simultaneously. He wanted a level playing field, and the two employees were initially suspicious of his motives for this. They were also very angry that they were not permitted to work together any more, and reluctant to give any ground.

The mediation began with separate meetings with the supervisor alone, and then the two employees together. Separate mediation meetings were then held with the supervisor and each of the two employees. During the mediation sessions, the employees told very similar versions of events. This raised concerns for the supervisor about the reliability of the information he had been given that he had based his decision to separate them on.

Outcome of the Mediation:

After hearing the versions of the employees, the supervisor agreed to allow them to work together and to look into some of their allegations about the staff that had originally talked to the supervisor about them.

It had been alleged that these two employees caused interpersonal problems in the workplace when they worked together. However, their counter argument was that what they actually caused was more work for those around them than those others wanted to do. They believed that the complaint against them had been an attempt by other staff to avoid having to do the work that was expected of them when they worked with this pair of employees. That is, when these two worked together, other staff’s work habits looked bad by comparison.

Employees Complain of a Toxic Work Environment

The Conflict:

A group of staff had expressed concerns about morale issues in the unit during an in house operational review exercise. They cited a toxic work environment, low morale and productivity, and a long history of conflict in the office including high turnover, favoritism, and concerns about a lack of faith or trust by the supervisor in unit staff.

It was alleged that there was conflict (a power struggle) between the supervisor and his boss. The two had very different supervisory styles and expectations for staff. Staff said that they openly criticized each other in front of other employees, creating divided allegiances amongst staff. These problems persisted after the supervisor's boss left, and a new boss took her place.

In addition, it was alleged that the supervisor was frequently absent from the workplace. This resulted in reduced support and guidance, and reduced opportunity to deal with ongoing office issues.

High staff turnover was alleged to have contributed to bad morale. It was alleged that experienced staff were replaced with inexperienced staff, contributing to increased workload for those who remained. The newer staff complained that they had little opportunity for training or mentoring. Staff who did attempt to mentor new hires complained that they were criticized for neglecting their own work.

Workload distribution in general was also a concern. One staff member had left on extended sick leave and this was attributed to stress due to the high workload. Remaining staff reported having to work overtime or take work home just to keep up, and were unable to use annual leave that they were entitled to. Competing priorities and a lack of role clarity were also raised as concerns.

Staff complained that the supervisor favored one new hire over another. Further, they cited that he did not acknowledge their work accomplishments, and that differences in philosophy regarding their work contributed to tension between him and staff. They reported a lack of trust in the supervisor, and said that they did not believe he had carried their concerns to higher management, and had not followed through on commitments he made to staff.

The supervisor complained that he was not supported by higher management. Instead, he was left to deal with these problems on his own.

The Mediation Process:

I first met with the supervisor to inform him of contents of the report describing the employees concerns. I also described the intended mediation process for the whole group, and addressed his considerable anxiety about the process.

I listened to the supervisor’s concerns, clarifying his feelings and needs, and describing the group mediation process and my intentions. In the end, the supervisor agreed to participate in the mediation process with the employees.

The supervisor was also enrolled in ongoing coaching support. This was intended to help deal with any issues that might emerge after the meeting with employees as it was anticipated that he would receive some candid feedback from his staff.

A group mediation session was then held with the staff and the supervisor to discuss the report and the issues identified. The discussion centered on workload issues and performance measurement and higher management requirements.

The Outcome:

There was an open, candid conversation about many of the issues raised in the report leading to a resolution of some of the issues. Some of the concerns had already been dealt with to the employees’ satisfaction between the date of the report, and the mediation session.

The staff had additional concerns that they wanted me to raise in my report to higher management. First, they were concerned regarding the transfer of responsibility for service delivery in their area from one part of the organization to another. They were anxious about this because they had received no assurances that there would be new staff and resources allocated to address this increase in workload. Second, they wanted me to raise their concern about the extent to which the organization was concerned with performance measurement, the amount of work this entailed for them, and the impact it had on their workload.

I agreed to relay the staff’s remaining unresolved concerns to higher management in my report, which was subsequently prepared

A Conflict Between 2 Co-workers Leads to an Absentee Employee

The Conflict:

An employee was absent from work for several weeks following an incident between her and other staff members. She shared an office, workstation, and a computer with another employee. On this occasion, an employee returned to the office to find her co-worker sitting at the computer with a group of his friends (coworkers) in the office. She asked him to give her access to the computer, but something in her to tone offended him and he responded in a way that offended her as well.

There were cultural and racial differences involved, and underlying disagreements about work ethics and competencies. In addition, the employee felt excluded and ostracized by her colleague and his group of friends in the workplace. There was an expectation that they work closely together to deliver a program jointly, but they were unable to do this and this was stressful for her. This led to her absenteeism.

The Mediation Process:

Two separate mediation sessions were held between the absentee employee and two of her colleagues. Issues were clarified and discussed on both sides.

The Outcome:

In the first mediation session an apology was offered, and the result was satisfactory to both parties. Although not all the issues were resolved in the 2nd mediation due to time restraints, it did lead to the employee’s return to work.

A Conflict Between Staff at Two Separate Offices Within an Organization

The Conflict:

Staff from two separate offices who worked together developed trust issues. This culminated in an e-mail from one supervisor to the other raising concerns about how the staff in the two offices were working together.

There was a service agreement between the two offices, which led to perceptions of power differences. At the same time, there was an expectation of professional collegiality and relationships based on equality of professional qualifications.

The supervisor who wrote the e-mail felt uncomfortable with staff from the other office telling her staff what to do. She also reported that in some cases, the staff criticized and even yelled at them when they believed things were not being done properly. The supervisor felt they should have brought their complaints to her, while the other supervisor had a philosophy of resolving differences at the lowest level.

There was also a difference of opinion between the two offices about which client information could be treated as confidential, and which information it was necessary to share with the other office staff. Confidentiality had been promised to a client, and then became a source of contention in a particular case. Staff safety was implicated in this decision. Other concerns also existed which led to problems around sharing information and trust.

The above concerns led to an internal fact-finding investigation and report prior to my involvement as a mediator.

The Mediation Process:

I received a copy of the fact-finding investigation report. The report was based on interviews with staff from both offices, and identified some of the specific concerns. Following the investigation process, an unnatural silence appeared to have descended on the group that created further hardening of positions and animosity.

During the mediation meeting of staff from both offices, the fact-finding report was discussed. The staff who were interviewed for the fact-finding investigation commented that the level of trust between two offices had diminished significantly. They reported that staff were leaving phone messages, notes, and email messages rather than speaking to each other directly. They reported that this sometimes lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations off the tone and intention of the messages.

Staff from both offices were also having others deliver a message for them even when they were present in the same office as the recipient. The high level of frustration this caused resulted in some instances when staff “lashed out” at each other.

There were also philosophical differences between the two offices about the nature of their roles and responsibilities and the best approach required for their clients. Each side accused the other of not seeing the big picture. There were also concerns about insufficient consultation between the offices prior to decision making, with decisions being released that could potentially affect the safety of staff in the other office who were unaware of the decision. This led to a climate of guardedness around information sharing.

The Outcome:

An open discussion occurred during the mediation, which lead to some “warming” of relations between the two groups. In particular, intentions were clarified on both sides, and some past errors were acknowledged that went some way to re-establishing trust between the two groups.

In addition, an agreement was reached on how the confidentiality of sources of information would be treated in the future. Agreement was also reached on a how staff would resolve differences in the future and conflict resolution training was recommended for the organization

If you think your organization could benefit from my conflict resolution services as the above past clients have, please contact me.

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Rob Cairns is a mediator and conflict resolution specialist who works in the Vancouver, BC area.

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