When I took my mediation training, several of my fellow students were already working in human resources or employee relations. Despite their different perspectives, they could all agree on one thing: microwave ovens are a major source of conflict in the workplace. Whether one person is warming up food that another finds smelly, or someone else is hogging the oven so no one else can warm up their lunch, the microwave is all too often a source of tension.
I found this surprising at the time and I was reminded of the microwave-as-flashpoint when I read about the recent Superior Court review of an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (OHRT) decision. In the original decision Maxcine Telfer, a small businesswoman, had been ordered to pay $36,000 to a former employee because of alleged discrimination and harassment. Among other things, the OHRT arbitrator found the staff microwave use policy to be discriminatory. The complainant said that she began to feel targeted after her boss complained about the smell when she warmed some curry in the microwave. Apparently Ms. Telfer is extremely sensitive to smells and the office had a strict “no scents” policy in place.
Conservative commentators have had a field day with this story, and I won’t say more about the original decision or its reversal by the Superior Court. What I found most interesting about the episode was how a relatively trivial matter can blow up into something much more serious. If they’re fortunate, employees will find ways to get along despite microwave abuse and other sources of tension. But what to do when a low-level conflict intensifies? Usually it isn’t possible or desireable simply to fire or transfer everyone involved in a conflict. Better yet, how to devise policies in such a way as to avoid unnecessary conflict in the first place?
Workplace mediation can help. In mediation, each party in the dispute has a chance to express their point of view. Parties get the opportunity to listen to and understand each other’s perspective, and then work together to come up with creative ways of resolving their difficulties. Bringing in a mediator to facilitate discussion, whether this means an outsider or someone already in the company with mediation training, is a good idea for a number of reasons. Research indicates that people are more likely to respect a policy or decision that they have had a hand in crafting. If the boss simply devises and hands down a policy inevitably there will be someone who doesn’t feel that their concerns were taken into consideration. This can be bad for morale. A policy that the boss has devised without fully consulting employees may not really address all of the issues that are important to them. A group of people working together is more likely to devise a workable solution than a single person working alone. Moreover, while having a fair and reasonable, say, “microwave use policy” may be the single most important element in a happy workplace, it is not the sort of thing that most employers will want to spend a lot of time thinking about. Mediation is a way of sharing the burden.