Weekly dilemma: Relationships between employees

A female board director and a male middle manager had a romantic relationship that ended a year ago. The board director claims the manager took the break-up badly and that his professional performance has slipped as a result – he has received a formal warning and has had several disciplinary hearings.

The manager has retained several pieces of e-mail evidence that could suggest harassment, and has made a formal complaint that he is being bullied and that the board is trying to get him to quit.

It is easy to see both sides of the story. What is the best course of action?

This is a difficult situation due to the personal nature of the dispute and, therefore, an external mediator is essential if participants are to speak freely and feel heard. In hindsight, it might have been a good idea to offer mediation before formal warnings and disciplinary hearings had reached an entrenched stage, as the male manager may now feel that matters have gone too far for both parties to be able to reach an agreeable solution.

The first hurdle is to ascertain whether the parties want to settle things informally. Both participants need to be willing to attend if informal mediation is to be effective. It is crucial to ensure at this stage that the male manager feels he has the influence to negotiate and affect the outcome of the dispute.

The power balance is an issue, so it may be appropriate for the manager to ask a willing colleague who is in a position of authority to the board director to attend.

Second, it is vital to ensure that both parties are told exactly what will be recorded on their personnel files. For example, as mediation is an informal and voluntary intervention, it is best if it records only the fact that mediation was offered. There is no need to put the details of the dispute on file.

Finally, when offering mediation, effective communication and clarity of purpose is essential. The company and participants need to identify any expected outcomes right at the start, as the success of mediation depends on openness and honesty.

Marilyn Appleton, mediation practice leader, Right Corecare

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