Mediation can help open the window and shed light on difficult issues

Crucial Conversations. Difficult Conversations. Dreaded Conversations. Whatever we call them, there comes a time in the workplace when emotions run high and the going gets tough, and despite all the training and all the practice, conversations break down before they get to where they need to go. In the workplace, when it comes to issues around diversity, around mental health, illness and bereavement for example, emotions, fear of doing more harm, or fear of invading privacy and fear of lack of skills in dealing with the outcome may prevent the conversation from even beginning. Unfortunately, often in these situations, a crisis will ensue before a productive action step is taken.

My colleague Michelle Phaneuf and I collaborated with Morgan Craig-Broadwith of the Canadian Mental Health Association (Calgary Chapter) to demonstrate in front of a live audience a workplace mediation around a mental health issue.  In our simulated workplace environment, a Vice President has offered the opportunity to two vital workplace players to settle their differences with the help of a mediator. Performance has suffered, communication has broken down, rumours are circulating — in short the entire workplace is impacted by the behaviour of two key people.

Mount Royal University Continuing Studies videotaped the session, and we will post that when it is edited and polished.

Bratislava_window_by_C_Munroe

A mediator can help open the window and shed light on difficult issues, empowering people to reach a resolution before a crisis.

The audience asked some good questions.

When is it appropriate to call a mediator? In the workplace, it can be particularly helpful to call a mediator when poor or no communication between two people in an interdependent working relationship has an impact on others around them and work productivity.

How often is a mediation successful?  The earlier the intervention, the  more likely the success.  Mediation is most successful when the process is voluntary; when the participants have the skills and wherewithal to speak and advocate for themselves; and are well informed about their rights. Mediation can be  mandated by an employer, and still a mediator can invite people to participate.  In fact, when mandated into a room, people have an opportunity to save face with colleagues.

What role does the mediator have to hold people to account who choose not to participate? The mediator’s role is only to facilitate the process, and to ask the difficult questions, not to provide or suggest solutions. A combination of conflict coaching and mediation ensures that participants have the opportunity to explore all their options both inside and outside the mediation process.

What information from the mediation does the mediator share with their client? At a minimum, the mediator will share information about the process and the timing.  The mediator will discuss information to be shared with the participants, and together they will agree on wording and who, if anyone, will receive the information.

What is the benefit of having two mediators? Two mediators have a greater opportunity to work together to hear all concerns. It is particularly helpful to hire two facilitators when dealing with a group larger than two.

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The Ombudsman is

November is Workplace Fairness Ombuds-month.  Most of you are now aware that Michelle and I have been celebrating the ombudsman through several events and by circulating articles on the topic.

On November 15 we were pleased to be joined at our luncheon by two highly experienced Conflict Resolution professionalsDeborah Sword and Josie Stiles.  Both come with a slightly different perspective and a lively conversation ensued.  Deborah is the former Western conflict manager for the Centre for Values and Ethics at Parks Canada Agency, reporting to and supporting the Parks Canada Ombudsman, and Josie is the recently appointed Ombudsman with Baker Hughes Canada.  Questions came fast and furious.  Here are a few highlights.

Mosaico de Ventanas II - México 2008

The role of the ombudman office reflects the values, ethics and culture of the organization it serves.

What distinguishes the role of the ombudsman?  Both our presenters agreed that one aspect that distinguishes the Ombudsman role from others is that of oversight.  The Ombuds role offers the opportunity to converse with every person within an organization without exception.  Deborah referred to the oversight role as one which entails listening for patterns.  It is important in the Ombuds role to have the authority and the means to take a global snapshot of an organization, track and record trends, and draw conclusions from those trends.

A clearly defined mandate for the Ombudsman is crucial. Neutrality is a foundational principle of all Ombuds practices. This neutrality is reflected in being an advocate for fair process and not taking sides.

In classical Ombuds roles, where the function also includes investigating complaints, Ombuds will draw conclusions and make recommendations. There is a debate in Ombuds’ circles around the appropriateness of the Ombuds office doing investigations, as some people suggest the role slips into ‘taking a stand /side” and defending one’s recommendations, or positions and this may be seen as advocating.

Could you have an ombudsman on a project?  The reference was to multifaceted projects which may be stretched across multiple organizations and through multiple roles.  Certainly there was agreement that having a third party neutral to turn to for the project team could be very valuable. Could this person also serve the role to seek out patterns in the organization?  At Parks Canada in fact, almost all work is on a project basis.  This may not be possible for cross-organizational projects. 

How do you market the ombudsman office? You need to find a balance. There is a role and a place for the ombudsman to attend group gatherings and meetings to introduce the office and its resources. There can also be a mail-out, but it is crucial that direct communication about the ombudsman office needs to come from the top down, from the CEO or equivalent. Only then is there a chance to build trust with employees that the organization is on board to address concerns they raise.

What distinguishes the organizational (corporate) ombudsman from the classical ombuds? Our conversation highlighted the difference between Deborah’s role at Parks Canada and Josie’s at Baker Hughes. As an organizational ombudsman, Josie is bound by these four values: independence, neutrality, informality and confidentiality.  At Parks Canada, Deborah was bound by the values of respect, impartiality, engagement and excellence.  Informality and confidentiality distinguish these two roles.  The Parks Canada Ombuds also is the Sr. Integrity Officer with a mandate to make findings of wrongdoing after thorough investigation of any allegations.

So, where does accountability lie in the organizational context?  Josie described her roles as a complement to health and safety and HR functions which are more compliance oriented and need to be kept distinct. The complementary role may include tasks such as coaching, which empowers staff to take on their own behaviour, and own their own accountability. The informality and confidentiality are crucial for establishing effective and trusting coaching relationships. One goal of coaching is to help staff take accountability for their actions.

Is the ombudsman there to add value to an organization?  Is it possible to assess the ombudsman office using traditional cost-effectiveness metrics?  Deborah provided several examples of tasks she does which are not traditional conflict management tasks; the PCA Ombuds’ role includes functional leadership.  In fact, this gives the Parks’ Ombuds a unique perspective between the role of the Ombudsman and the conflict manager because the two roles exist in the same office and can hand files off to each other in a seamless transition as the situation requires. Does this increase the value of this role?

Some might argue that the Ombudsman, no matter how independent or impartial, is still a pawn of management, and as such a pawn is there to ensure cost-effectiveness.

If the Ombudsman works within an organization to enhance employee retention and engagement, and in so doing mitigates staff turnover, and fosters a more engaged workplace where people are more productive and more innovative then yes, I would say an Ombudsman adds value.

What do you think?

Workplace bullying is prevalent and costly

The following is  guest post from Michelle Phaneuf:

Workplace bullying is prevalent in our workplaces and is a serious issue that costs corporations significantly in lost time and money due to absenteeism, staff turnover, and medical and legal costs. Studies indicate workplace bullying is a result of conflict escalation and instituting a third party Ombudsman office as an informal conflict resolution channel is an ideal way to tackle this issue.

Jorge is working the night shift. Over six months ago he had a conflict with one of his co-workers who insisted that Jorge was taking over his duties. The co-worker involved the manager who decided that the co-worker was mistaken and that he and Jorge were to continue with their present duties.

Because of confidentiality concerns, the manager did not bring this issue forward to Jorge. Since the manager’s decision Jorge began experiencing on-going bullying behaviours by his co-worker and others in the department. They would play demeaning pranks on him throughout the night, call him names and shun him during breaks. Jorge’s manager works during the day and Jorge is reluctant to report the behaviour and decides he will ignore it and it will eventually stop. This is not the case and he begins to dread coming to work, experiences anxiety attacks and his work performance deteriorates. Jorge eventually leaves because he can’t take it anymore, believes he is being weak but saves face by indicating to the organization that he has found another job.

The costs of workplace bullying can be mitigated with an ombudsman

Early intervention through an ombudsman office can address bullying in the workplace and prevent costly escalation.

Studies show that presented with a list of possible triggers of bullying, unresolved conflicts belonged to the top five most indicated causes of bullying (Zapf, 1999). Likewise, departments with many bullying incidents showed an unhealthy work environment with more conflicts as compared to departments with few bullying incidents (Agervold, 2009). Similarly, investigating the relative strength of a broad range of organizational causes of bullying (i.e. job stressors, leadership behaviour and organizational climate), interpersonal conflicts proved to be one of the strongest predictors of being a target of bullying (Hauge et al., 2007). These results align with Ayoko and colleagues (2003) who, by means of a multi-method approach, found that conflict incidents successfully predicted workplace bullying; and with Baillien and De Witte (2009) who observed that bullying among Belgian employees was predicted by a high number of conflicts in the team.

New findings from Baillien, Bollen and De Witte (2011) indicate that organizations can prevent workplace bullying through their reaction to conflicts. Specifically, organizations can establish problem solving behaviours and discourage forcing as a way to solve conflicts. This may, for example, be accomplished by specific training sessions for managers and their employees on how to deal with conflicts and by stressing the importance of addressing conflicts in a collaborative instead of a competitive way.

Above and Beyond Undercover Boss

Recently Calgary Transit Director Doug Morgan appeared on an episode of Undercover Boss Canada with a goal of giving Calgarians a behind-the-scenes look at the work of employees who make his organization tick and, according to Ruth Myles of the Calgary Herald, a chance to hear an uncensored take on the workplace from employees.

Working Statues

All too often in the workplace there is disconnect between the corner office and frontline workers, reinforced by everyday barriers including assistants’ desks, dress codes, and separate floors and buildings. Doug Morgan had to take a pretty extreme measure to vault the barriers at Calgary Transit, donning an uncomfortable dark wig and in his own words “crazy shoes”, but he relished the opportunity to connect on a new level with his staff and is now looking for ways to continue and reinforce that “connection back into the organization.”

You don’t need to get on Undercover Boss Canada and don a crazy uncomfortable disguise to connect with your employees says Michelle Phaneuf, Alberta Co-Director of the Workplace Fairness Institute. Michelle says “owners may be aware that there are issues in the workplace, but employees are often missing that safe environment to provide direct feedback.”

Michelle and her fellow Workplace Fairness co-director, Marjorie Munroe, have developed a process to engage employees for that all important feedback. The Discovery Interview process is the first step in supporting organizations to instill fairness in the workplace. Using skills gained in their extensive mediation experience, Marjorie and Michelle establish a safe environment and gather anonymous and frank data around issues that impact employees. This data is compiled and presented in a report that highlights concerns, often revolving around trust, respect, leadership and transparency. Marjorie Munroe acknowledges that management often has a good idea of what is going on within the organization but adds “nonetheless Discovery Interviews serve two very important purposes: they provide a forum for employees to feel heard an acknowledged, and they send a firm and transparent message that management is concerned about learning the truth.”

Discovery Interviews are only the first step. The second step is often a group conversation facilitated by Michelle and Marjorie to ask: How can the employees work with management to find solutions to enhance their organizational culture? Together, staff and management work on a specific plan to address concerns. Through careful professional facilitation, staff are empowered to contribute to a solution which will meet needs in the workplace they have defined. Because both staff and management define the terms for success, success becomes achievable.

The Workplace Fairness Institute is a Canadian company focused on enhancing organizational culture through collaboration, communication and proactivity in managing conflict.

The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office is a new initiative of the Workplace Fairness Institute which offers ombuds services to small and mid-sized organizations. Trained as ombudsman through the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman and the Osgoode Hall Law School and with backgrounds as Chartered Mediators , Marjorie and Michelle bring abundant experience and ample expertise to the Ombudsman office. The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office will support individuals by working with them to understand and consider options regarding their concerns, answering questions, facilitating communication, and providing information and referral.

The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office will provide a service which emphasizes independence, impartiality, fairness and accountability. Additionally the service will help organizations recognize and address systemic issues early.

November is Workplace Fairness Ombuds-month

In November we will celebrate the organizational ombudsman.

You are probably familiar with the ombuds function of municipalities, governments and large organizations, but do you wonder about the benefit and value for a small organization?

If you are you a business owner/manager or Human Resource Professional of a small to mid-sized firm curious to explore ways to attract and engage employees and mitigate risk, we would like to invite you to a reception on November 6 to explore how it can help you.

Wednesday, November 6th

4:30-7:00 pm

Ranchmen’s Club

710 13 Ave SW
 
Refreshments provided

Join like-minded professionals as Marjorie Munroe and Michelle Phaneuf with Workplace Fairness Alberta facilitate a discussion about the foundational principles of the ombuds office: fairness, impartiality, independence, accountability.

You will have an opportunity to:

  • gain insight into how an ombuds function could benefit your organization
  • network with like-minded professionals
  • explore fairness, impartiality, independence and accountability and how your organization currently fosters these values

To RSVP (required) and learn more:

http://www.evite.com/l/M9dwaQsUmE/v?utm_content=title

See you there!

Your conflict style contributes to workplace stress

Many of us associate increased stress with work/life balance and a heavy workload. Did you know that the way you manage conflict may also contribute to increased stress?

Since the seventies, conflict resolution theorists have considered styles of conflict management. The most popular assessment tool, the Thomas Kilman Instrument (TKI) breaks it into five styles: Competing, Accommodating, Collaborating, Compromising and Avoiding. There are many other tools on the market which use slightly different language, but they do share the common basis that your conflict style depends on your focus on self, versus other, and your focus on task, versus relationship.

Your Conflict Style affects stress

The Competitor is more directive and dominating, and more focused on self and task. The benefit of dealing with a competitor is that you know what you are dealing with – there is no beating about the bush here. On the other hand, the Competitor is not often a good listener. In the workplace where supervisors have a highly competitive conflict management style, staff are less likely to want to listen to them and work with them. Relationship stress increases with the competition for scarce resources, and productivity goes down. Trust also erodes.

The Avoider withdraws from relationships and from task in conflict. It could be that they withdraw because they are fearful of escalating conflict, and wish to ensure harmony. Possibly they withdraw to manage their own emotions and maintain professionalism. Or, the Avoider may withdraw to take time to process and think. There is a stress contradiction here: the Avoider experiences less stress because they are not in the conflict, but relationship stress increases because of the perception that the Avoider doesn’t care, or is weak. Task stress increases as work is not getting done or decisions are not made, and trust erodes.

Accommodators are focused on supporting the needs of others, and often in conflict stress increases when they work hard to put the needs of others in front of their own needs. Task stress increases with the perception that the work or getting the job done lacks priority.

When relationship conflict escalates, when conflict gets personal, stress and anxiety increase. As stress goes up, people paradoxically begin to depersonalize the conflict. Often when I arrive to help, people are not even able to use each other’s names. People become known by their job description and their actions, not by their names or their personalities.

A collaborative conflict management style contributes to decreased stress and anxiety. Collaborators have the patience and the skills to facilitate the dialogue required to identify and meet the needs of all stakeholders. The Collaborator has a highly integrative style.

Often when people complete these conflict styles instruments in the comfort of a secure classroom, or at home, they score high in their investment in task and relationship, and in self and other. Yes, when we have blood in the brain, and we are professional and deliberate with our speaking and listening skills, we can all be collaborative. But what happens when our buttons are being pushed? When the personal stakes are high and we are under threat? I know what happens to me, I head to the corner of avoidance, and my stress and anxiety go up.

Vista Projects embarked on a Workplace Fairness Assessment in November 2011, and the results have seen an increased more accessible profile for HR in the management of workplace conflict and a new tool for enhancing employee engagement.

In Alberta’s booming oil and gas sector it is becoming increasingly important for competitive companies to differentiate themselves for potential employees.  Vista Projects, a privately held full services engineering and procurement (EP) company, has been ranked among the best small and medium employers in Canada for three years since 2010, and they are not resting on their laurels.  In a few short years Vista Projects has grown to a mid-sized company of nearly 400 employees.  Management at Vista recognize the importance of cultivating, maintaining and promoting a healthy work environment and they are committed to working for it.

In November 2011 Leah Eggen, Human Resources Manager at Vista Projects Ltd, decided to do a Workplace Fairness Assessment.   Michelle Phaneuf (REA Agreements) and I worked closely with Amie Oslund (HR Generalist) to do it, and despite the serious hurdle of getting time commitment from busy staff working for billable hours, we completed a research project which has led Vista’s HR group to implement positive changes.  This decision was made with the understanding that planning for conflict management will reap dividends and avoid the necessity for costly crisis management later.

Amie joined us at our Workplace Fairness lunch on June 26 2012 to tell us why Vista decided to do the audit, to describe the process, the results, the implementation of changes, and talk about some of the benefits and lessons learned.   The audience of HR professionals and consultants had plenty of questions, and were intrigued and impressed with the forward thinking and strategically oriented HR group led by Leah Eggen.

The decision to proceed.  There were three primary reasons Vista chose to invest in a Workplace Fairness Assessment:

  1. To understand conflict management and how it was working
  2. To identify areas for improvement (e.g. conflict resolution, training)
  3. To learn how Vista can improve employee communication

Buy in from senior management was critical to the success of this initiative.  One barrier was time.  It was impossible to get commitment for a meeting which would last longer than one half day, and this was only achieved because Amie was able to allow staff to bill their time to the HR budget.  That this is an option at all at Vista is a testament to the commitment Vista has to fostering a healthy workplace, and to their view of the importance of a strategic and well-funded HR group.  

The process.  Amie hand-picked two groups of 6-7 staff for the assessment.  It was important to work with two groups. There is the head office and a 2nd major office that houses a subsidiary, which is a joint venture with another Calgary engineering firm.  Vista is an organization with diversity: corporate cultural diversity, gender diversity (as an engineering firm, it is primarily male) and cultural diversity.  The diversity spectrum was one reason the Workplace Fairness Assessment was important, and though we entered it with knowledge of issues, we gained greater clarity of the impact.  Amie chose participants carefully to ensure groups were representative of different working units.

Michelle and I conducted confidential phone interviews with each individual prior to the in-person meeting.  We asked questions aimed at determining how employees viewed conflict management and the sources of conflict within their immediate unit.  The phone interviews provided an opportunity for employees to speak openly about their experiences resolving interpersonal conflict.  We then held a half-day meeting with each group, and an HR person sat in at each meeting.  The goal was open and candid discussion about Vista.

The results.  Amie garnered tangible results from these discussions, which she summarized as follows:

  1. Code of Conduct.  Amie identified the need for revisions to the Code of Conduct and policies, and the need to improve distribution of the code and the policies.
  2. Roles.  Staff had been experiencing frustration with the lack of understanding of job roles.
  3. Gender diversity.  Though management was obviously aware of the gender imbalance, the confidential conversations provided a forum to safely bring the issue into the light and discuss it openly.
  4. Cultural diversity.  As with gender diversity, the forums brought cultural diversity to the table, and provided an opportunity to openly discuss language and other issues in a safe environment.
  5. Conflict management processes.  Participants frankly discussed the pros and cons of the open door policy.
  6. Training.  Participants clearly identified the need for training and provided specific feedback for topics.

As a result of the Workplace Fairness Assessment, Amie and her colleagues at Vista have embarked on a number of changes.  In the past six months they tackled the Code of Conduct and adjusted new hire orientations to include information about harassment in the workplace and Workplace Fairness.  They posted the Code of Conduct and policies on their intranet and Quality Management System.  They confirmed and updated job role descriptions and ensured they are accurate and readily available, and they launched a monthly training initiative which includes soft skills, leadership and technical training.

A relationship with Janus Associates has strengthened the Vista EAP program, and the HR group is working hard to publicize it with a soft-sell, talking about it with managers, and slipping pamphlets to staff.  Buying a table at the Women of Influence Speaker Series is a new initiative at Vista aimed at engaging women in the workforce.

Importantly, partly as a result of the Workplace Fairness Assessment, HR has become a widely used resource for staff searching for results in resolving interpersonal conflict.  The Open Door Policy continues to ensure managers are also approachable.

There is work to be done.   Amie has identified a need to formalize the Open Door Policy and to create a more consistent and formal conflict management process.

The Workplace Fairness Audit was successful at Vista because of senior management and shareholder buy in.  Senior management did see the value, and they do see the results coming to fruition.  The initiative continues to build trust between management and the HR group.  Vista is a company committed to building a culture which invests in employees, and is not just a project company.  The timing was also optimal, as it is a period of growth for Vista.

The benefits.  Amie has identified the benefits of the Workplace Fairness Assessment as gaining a greater understanding of how Vista’s staff experience conflict management, understanding communication issues in the workplace.  Now it is possible that Vista can use Workplace Fairness along with the Best Small and Medium Employers Survey to enhance employee engagement.  Vista has incorporated Workplace Fairness language in their policies and their new employee orientation.

Lessons learned.  Amie recommends that if possible, it is important to use a larger cross section of people, larger groups, and allotting more time for the group meetings.  We were severely hampered by time constraints in a busy work environment.  While allotting hours to the HR budget helped to ease this, even more is needed.

A successful Workplace Fairness Assessment requires the commitment of HR, and the buy in of senior staff.  It is possible to learn enough to implement changes with even a small sampling of participants particularly, as in this situation, when you have a simple conflict management system.  Trust between staff, the HR group, and the Workplace Fairness Analysts is critical to the success, as it is a process which relies on frank and open discussion.

To learn more about Workplace Fairness, please visit www.workplacefairness.ca or in Alberta call:

Marjorie Munroe (403) 5432 6998
Michelle Phaneuf (403) 243-0147

A Workplace Fairness Assessment at Vista Projects: Process, Results, and Benefits