“The Interrupters”: Lessons for Mediators


I had a chance last week to see The Interrupters – a new documentary about mediators in Chicago who work to reduce gang violence.  The film focuses on three “violence interrupters” who intervene in conflicts before they become violent.  All three work with the organization “CeaseFire,” founded by Gary Slutkin.  Slutkin, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, believes that gang violence is a public health problem and that the spread of violence mimics the spread of disease.  The solution is similar in both cases:  Find those who are most infected and stop the infection at its source.

Critics have said that the film is “riveting” and I would have to agree.  It is fascinating to see, up-close and first-hand, the work done by these brave men and women.  The film also has some lessons for mediators of non-violent conflicts.

Words matter:  Ameena Matthews (in the image above), one of the mediators portrayed, tells us early in the film:  “They say ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’?  Words will get you killed.”  Even when violence is an unlikely possibility, choice of words – and the respect or disrespect that those words convey – can have a crucial effect on negotiations.  Mediators may need to coach clients about their choice of words and get them to reflect on the possible consequences of those choices.

Credibility is key:  The mediators portrayed in the film can be successful only if they are respected by the people they work among.  Their personal histories, experience with violence, and the force of personality they display all contribute to their credibility.  While “credibility” will mean something different for mediators working with a different clientele (say, Bay Street lawyers rather than youth-at-risk) its importance should not be underestimated.

Gain trust by demonstrating that you understand the client’s perspective:  In a powerful scene, Ameena and some other mediators intervene in a confrontation taking place right outside their offices.  We see her conversation with one of the young men she has just hustled away.  At first, it seems (incongruously) that she is praising him for almost getting involved in a violent conflict:  “You came to protect your family, right?  You came down because your sisters called you?”  We see the point of her strategy later.  The young man is prepared to listen to Ameena when she appeals to his protective impulses:  “How are you going to protect your family if you’re in jail?  How will they cope with that?”

Use the clients’ own values in getting them to think about their actions:  The violence interrupters are not neutral with respect to the outcome of their negotiations.  Their goal, in every case, is to reduce violence and save lives.  One of their techniques (familiar to mediators everywhere) is to get their clients to think about whether their actions are in harmony with the values they express.  We see mediator Cobe Williams working with two brothers who are members of rival gangs.  The brothers claim to love one another, but bicker with one another and with their mother until Cobe wonders (and we wonder) if he can make a breakthrough.  The turning point comes when he asks each brother in turn, “If they [the gang] was coming after your brother, would you protect him?”  When each brother sees the other answer in the affirmative, they seem to realize that their bickering and trash-talking and posturing are out of place.

Listening works:  Many of the people we see involved with CeaseFire are very charismatic.  Tio Hardiman, head of the violence interrupters program, and Ameena Matthews in particular, come across as very strong personalities and powerful, effective orators.  The film contains several splashy scenes of their work and the positive influence they have on others is evident.  Yet the film also contains quieter, yet equally powerful moments, when all the mediator seems to do is maintain his composure and listen, and then demonstrate that he has heard the speaker.  Several times, we see violent impulses drained away as the speaker realizes that his grievance has been heard and understood.


Bill 168 – Investigating Complaints under your Policy

detectiveOK.  You have a policy about violence and harassment in the workplace.  You’ve got a program in place to implement the policy and to make employees aware of it.  Now someone has made a complaint under the policy.  What are your next steps?

With any luck, the policy will have been written so that your next steps are already laid out.  The complaint will have to be investigated, and based on the investigation, some remedy may be called for.  The investigator will speak to the person who has made the complaint (“the complainant” ) and to the accused person (“the respondent”).  After each interview, the investigator will draw up a statement for each party, which they will sign.  The investigator may also speak to witnesses and have them sign statements as well.  Finally, the investigator will study your policy, and then determine whether the behaviour in question constitutes a violation of it or not.  The investigator’s decision will be in the form of a written report.  The report is delivered to whomever is in charge of sanctions under the policy.  The investigator may be a supervisor, someone from the Human Resources team, or an outside party.  (I offer investigations through my company Principled Dispute Resolution and Consulting.)

An example might be useful here:  Mike is an employee, and Mary is his immediate supervisor.  After learning about the sections of the policy regarding harassment, Mike makes a complaint that Mary has, on several instances, made negative, hurtful, and belittling comments about his recently acquired tattoos.  Some of these remarks were made in private, but some were in the presence of his co-workers Sam and Jill.  The investigator interviews Mike, asking him to describe these incidents.  Based on the interview, the investigator writes up a statement.  Mike reviews it and signs, or asks the investigator to make changes before he will sign.  Next the investigator interviews Mary, to get her perspective on the incidents in question.  Again, the interviewer draws up a statement for Mary’s approval and signature.  Depending on what Mary has said, (“I did make the comments and I’m very sorry,” or “I respectfully asked Mike to observe our dress code and never belittled him”) the investigator may interview Sam and Jill about the incidents that they witnessed, and draw up statements for them.  Finally, the investigator studies the workplace policy on harassment in light of the relevant legislation (in Ontario that means Bill 168). and makes a decision about whether Mary’s behaviour is in violation of the policy.  (Your policy might be stricter than the relevant legislation, but it cannot be weaker.)

What happens after the report is submitted?  Again, your policy should describe the possible sanctions or consequences for violations.  Mediation may or may not be appropriate at this point, depending on the nature of the incidents.  It might be good for Mike and Mary to sit down together with a neutral third party and to discuss, in a controlled environment, what happened between them.  Mediation is an option, whether or not the investigator finds that Mary’s behaviour was inappropriate.  Mike’s hurt feelings are real, whether or not Mary intended him to feel badly, and whether or not her actions crossed the line into harassment.  Mike and Mary may still have to work together, and clearing the air between them is a good idea.

Once you have a policy on workplace harassment and programs in place to implement it, don’t be surprised if you start to receive complaints.  Employees may feel that they no longer have to put up with behaviour that they have endured for some time.  And don’t be dismayed to receive complaints.  Although it isn’t nice to think that harassment occurs in your workplace, being aware is the first step in stamping it out.


Bill 168 – What Are Employers’ Responsibilities?

Boss BalloonsOntario’s Bill 168 lays out the responsibilities that employers have in preventing and responding to workplace violence and harassment.

Employers have a duty to assess the risks of workplace violence, and to consider all potential sources of violence in the workplace (“from strangers, clients, customers, patients, students, workers, supervisors, intimate partners, or family members”).  And they must have measures and procedures in place to control these risks. Employers must also take reasonable precaution to protect workers at risk of domestic violence, if they are aware (or ought reasonably to be aware) of such risks.  It is worth noting that an employer’s obligation is not cancelled if the targeted worker does not want any steps taken to protect her.  While employers must respect their workers’ privacy, they must nonetheless take precautions on behalf of workers who are at risk of violent attack.

Finally, employers must warn workers if, in the course of their work, they will be in contact with a person with a history of violence, and if they are at risk of physical injury.  Once again, privacy concerns may be relevant here, but the right to privacy does not trump the duty to inform workers if they are at risk.

Every employer must have a policy on violence and a policy on harassment (or a single policy on both).  If an employer has 6 or more regular employees, then the policy must be written down, reviewed annually, and posted in the workplace.  Employers must also have a program to implement the policy, and they must make sure that employees are informed about both the policy and the program.

At a minimum, the policy should:

•    State that violence is an occupational health and safety hazard
•    Define workplace violence and harassment, and state that they are unacceptable
•    Make a commitment to protecting workers from violence and harassment
•    Encourage workers to report all incidents of violence and harassment
•    Make a commitment to investigate and deal with complaints promptly
•    Outline consequences of behaviour covered by the policy

To sum up, employers have a duty to recognize inappropriate behaviour and deal with it promptly, and they must communicate to their employees how they plan to fulfill this duty.

I am not a lawyer and none of this is intended as legal advice!  The Ontario Ministry of Labour has some excellent resources for Bill 168 on their website, including examples of policies and programs, and tools for drafting your own policies.  (It might also be helpful to look at one of my earlier posts, How to Write a Code of Conduct.)

Next time:  How to deal with complaints under your policy.

Defining Workplace Violence and Harassment – What Bill 168 Says

365 - 88 - thor the brownhorseOntario’s Bill 168 is an amendment to the Occupational Health and Safety Act and has been in effect since 2010.  Its aim is to establish minimum standards and to set out the rights and responsibilities of all those who have a role dealing with violence and harassment in the workplace. Although you may feel that you “know it when you see it” when it comes to violence and harassment in the workplace, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the legal understandings of these terms.

“Workplace violence” means the use, attempt to use, or the threat to use physical force that causes or could cause injury, in a workplace.  The “threat” of violence includes threatening notes, emails, or telephone calls.  (The legislation is silent as to Facebook postings and threats via Twitter.)

It is important to note that the relevant factor here is that the violence occurs in a workplace.  Who commits or threatens the violence is not relevant.  A violent act or threat may originate with another worker, a supervisor, a customer or client, an acquaintance of someone in the workplace, or a random stranger. When employers assess the risk of workplace violence (as they are obliged to do), they must consider all of these possible sources of violence.  It is worth noting that domestic violence that takes place in a workplace is covered under the Act, and that employers have a duty to protect workers from domestic violence in the workplace.

Although workplace violence can have deadly consequences, thankfully it is relatively rare.  Workplace harassment doesn’t often make the news, but I suspect that it contributes more often than we realize to low morale and low productivity.  (See my previous posts on Workplace Strife and What makes for a “good job”?)  “Harassment” is defined as a course of “vexatious” (bothersome) comment or conduct that is unwelcome, or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.  Examples include bullying, intimidating or offensive jokes or innuendos, displaying or circulating offensive pictures or materials, and making offensive or intimidating phone calls.  A “course” of comment or conduct implies that the behaviour in question has happened more than once.

Does this mean that a supervisor can no longer criticize a worker’s job performance?  No.  Reasonable actions on the part of a supervisor that are part of his or her normal work are excluded.  These include changes in work assignments, scheduling, job assessment and evaluation, workplace inspections, implementation of dress codes and disciplinary action.  For example, it is perfectly acceptable for Mary to tell her employee, Mike, that the company’s dress code requires him to cover up his new tattoos while on the job.  It would not be acceptable for Mary to belittle or ridicule Mike for getting tattooed in the first place.  Nor would it be acceptable for Mary to allow or encourage others in the workplace to hassle Mike about the tattoos.

I am not a lawyer and none of this is intended as legal advice!  The Ontario Ministry of Labour has some excellent resources for Bill 168 on their website.

In my next post, I’ll talk about employers’ responsibilities under Bill 168.


What makes for a “good job”?

Coworkers Mídias SociaisMy daughter is an avid player of the iPhone/iPad game “Tiny Tower.”  The object of the game is to make your tower as tall as possible, all the while managing the businesses and apartments within and seeing to the happiness of your residents or “bitizens.”  I think it says something about our recessionary world that the way to make your bitizens happy (complete with smiley faces) is to put them into their “dream job” – whether it is to work in a bakery, a dental office, or a tattoo parlour.  Consider that for a moment – the way to happiness isn’t through leisure, family and loving relationships, knowledge or spiritual enlightenment, but through having the right job.  (Another perspective on “Tiny Tower” appeared here, on the “PopMatters” website.)

Most of us spend a lot of time at work, and there is no doubt what happens at work contributes to our sense of well-being.  And most of us recognize that we’re better suited to (and would be happier doing) certain jobs rather than others.  But a recent study suggests that what makes us happy at work is not always what we think it is.  Thomas Cornelissen examined the data collected by the German Socio-Economic Panel, a household-based survey of the German population which started in 1984 and has now surveyed over 20,000 adults.  He found that the three most important factors in job satisfaction were (in this order)

  • Relations with colleagues and supervisors
  • Task diversity
  • Job security

Cornelissen’s article, “The interaction of job satisfaction, job search, and job changes. An empirical investigation with German panel data” appeared in volume 10, no. 3 of the Journal of Happiness Studies. (He also found that lack of job satisfaction leads to the probability of job search, which in turn leads to increased likelihood of job change, especially when labour market conditions are favourable.  But that is what you would expect, isn’t it?)

The lessons for managers seem clear, if not always easy or obvious to put into practice.  Employees will be happier and will be more likely to stay on the job if their relations with one another and with management are good.  And how to help develop and maintain those good relations?  Make sure that your employees can talk to you.  Understand the cost of workplace strife.  And when conflicts arise, consider workplace mediation .

Anger on the Job

I recently read a terrific article on anger in the workplace:  Deanna Geddes and Lisa T. Stickney, “The trouble with sanctions: Organizational responses to deviant anger displays at work,” published earlier this year in Human Relations (vol. 64 no. 2).  The authors surveyed employees in the U.S. about expressions of “deviant” anger they had witnessed in the workplace, the responses by management and co-workers, and about overall outcomes.  Their results may surprise you.

I often work with people who have been on the receiving end of or witnessed an angry outburst.  Someone (an employee, co-worker, neighbour, or partner) simply “lost it.”  The specifics may include yelling, screamed obscenities, slamming doors, threats of violence, hurtful email messages WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS, and the uncomfortable silence that follows, lasting from a few hours to several days, when no one is sure what to say or how to respond, and everyone fears what might happen next.

While it is uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of an angry outburst, being the one who “loses it” in front of others is hardly much better.  I wrote in an previous post that our sense of anger is often tied to our perception of injustice.  Although there are people who become angry at everything (or at nothing), expressions of anger sometimes have a legitimate cause.  Anger in the workplace can signal systematic and significant problems.

Geddes and Stickney found three different kinds of responses to anger in the workplace:

  • Sanctions:  These may be formal (warnings, suspensions, dismissal) or informal (coworkers distance themselves from the angry person or respond with anger in kind).
  • Support:  Management and/or co-workers try to understand what caused the outburst.  They may speak with the offender about his or her behaviour in a supportive manner.
  • Avoidance:  Everyone pretends that the outburst never happened.

The authors found that when management and co-workers responded to anger in a supportive, problem-solving manner, the results could be positive.  As the authors write, “even intense emotional outbursts can provide information, and if responded to more compassionately, can lead to favorable change.”  They found that even a single supportive act by a manager or co-worker could significantly improve a problematic situation.

Surprisingly, acts of deviant anger, even physical acts of anger, were found sometimes to have significantly positive effects in the workplace, even though they were often met with formal sanctions.  Physical anger displays and employee dismissal were highly correlated, but there was no association between dismissals and positive change in the workplace.  So whatever made the situation better, it was not simply because one angry person (a “bad apple”) was removed.  The authors think it more likely that a physical act of anger, because it is so highly visible and difficult to ignore, prompts an immediate response by management, including attempts to address the cause of the emotional outburst.

The least effective response to anger?  Pretending that it didn’t happen.  The evidence in this study indicates that ignoring emotional episodes is not good practice.  Not only is the opportunity for positive change lost, but the lack of any response is frequently troubling to other employees.

The lesson for managers:  When employees “lose it” on the job, there must be a response.  Emotional displays that reflect an aggressive or harmful intent must be sanctioned, and hostile or violent employees must be removed.  Less intense and troubling outbursts can lead to positive change if they are used to identify those workplace conditions that require attention.  Responding to anger and other emotional outbursts can be difficult, but the viability of your business may depend on it.

I’m in Mediation. Why do I need a Lawyer?

Lawyer Bashing Is Fun

The Ontario Association of Family Mediators “Code of Professional Conduct” states that mediators must inform clients of the advisability of obtaining independent legal advice, both from the outset of the mediation and prior to signing any mediated agreement. Indeed, many mediators will not accept as clients people who refuse to obtain independent legal advice. Sometimes people who are working with a mediator are dismayed to find this out. “We want to stay out of court!” they protest. “Why do we need lawyers?”

The short answer: Your goal is not just an agreement. Your goal is a durable agreement, one that neither party will be motivated to challenge in the future. A durable agreement will save you time and money in the long run. It will provide stability for everyone involved and allow both parties to get on with their lives.

There are two main reasons why consulting a lawyer is important for crafting a durable agreement. First, each party needs a lawyer to certify their financial disclosure. If it turns out that one of the parties has (whether by mistake or on purpose) misrepresented his or her financial situation, any agreement reached on the basis of the misrepresentation may not be durable. The other party would have a reason to challenge the agreement in court.

Second, both parties need independent legal advice. This means that each party needs to know their rights under the law, and to what extent (if any) the mediated agreement deviates from these legal rights. For example, if one of the parties agrees to forgo spousal support, she needs to know what her legal entitlements are so that she can make an informed decision. If she makes a decision without having all of the relevant information, then any agreement she signs may not be durable. She would have a reason to challenge the agreement in court. Now, some people, for all kinds of reason, decide to accept an agreement that does not reflect their legal entitlements. Some agree to settlements that provide less than their legal entitlement. Some agree to settlements that are more generous to ex-partners than is strictly legally required. Many different kinds of agreements may be fine, as long as everyone is fully informed about their rights and obligations under the law.

Independent legal advice means that each party needs a separate lawyer. By definition, one lawyer cannot offer independent advice to two parties in the same dispute. It is a good idea to consult with a lawyer early on in the mediation process, and be informed about your rights and obligations as you proceed. This is likely to save you time and money in the long run. If you’ve developed an agreement on the basis of misinformation or misunderstanding, a lawyer may advise you to start over.

Finally, be sure to engage a lawyer who has expertise in family law. Don’t hire your cousin the corporate lawyer or the really likeable real estate lawyer who helped you buy your house. Family law is complicated and you want to make sure that whomever you work with is well-informed. If you’re determined to stay out of court, make sure your lawyer knows this and respects your wishes. (And to find a lawyer who is also determined to stay out of court, consider working with a collaborative lawyer.)

"Droit de Suite" in the UK: Economic Impact So Far

Lucian Freud at the Museo Correr

I’ve written here before about “Droit de Suite” or artist’s resale rights. These are fees paid to artists when their work is resold. And I’ve written about some of the bad arguments often made against the adoption of droit de suite. In 2006 the UK adopted artists’ resale rights for living artists, and in 2012 they plan to extend the legislation to benefit the heirs of artists who have died within the past seventy years. At the time that droit de suite was implemented in the UK, many artworld figures made dire predictions that prices for the work of living artists would fall, and that those with artworks to re-sell would leave the UK for markets (such as China, Switzerland, and the U.S.) where artists’ resale rights did not apply. Either of these consequences would have been bad news for the UK art market, and for the many artists, designers, dealers, and others, whose livelihood is linked to it.

Have any of these dire predictions come true? Chanont Banternghansa, an economist at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Kathryn Graddy, a professor in the Department of Economics at Brandeis University, decided to investigate the effect of artists’ resale rights in the UK. Their paper, “The impact of the Droit de Suite in the UK: an empirical analysis,” appeared recently in the Journal of Cultural Economics (2011) 35:2. (It is also available here, on Professor Graddy’s website.) Their results should be encouraging for those who argue that the Canadian government should adopt similar legislation to that already in force in the European Union.

Banternghansa and Graddy focused on works sold by the two major auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, from August 1, 1993 until July 31, 2007. (They excluded works sold by dealers, as prices paid and quantities sold are difficult to verify.) They made two different comparisons. First they compared those works that would be subject to droit de suite after February 1, 2006 with all art works in the UK that would not be subject to droit de suite. Next, they compared those same works (those subject to the droit de suite after February 2006), with works that were sold in other countries, but would have been subject to droit de suite if sold in the UK.

Banternghansa and Graddy found no evidence that the adoption of artists’ resale rights had a negative impact on price. They speculate that art buyers, in determining what they will pay for a given work, may not calculate the effect that the droit de suite will have on future re-sales, or that the effect may be too small to measure. As they say, given the inherent difficulty of pricing art and the high commission fees paid by both buyers and sellers, the droit de suite may not figure very largely in sellers’ thinking. Banternghansa and Graddy also found no evidence that those wishing to re-sell works subject to droit de suite had deserted the UK for other markets. However they caution that this might change when the UK extends artists’ resale rights to an artist’s heirs after his or her death.

The impact of droit de suite on the UK art market seems to have been minimal so far. Certainly, the most pessimistic forecasts have not come to pass. This might give some confidence to those who would like to see Canada also adopt a policy of artists’ resale rights.

Think Before You Type

good secretary

Tens of thousands of people have now read a series of emails sent by Carolyn Bourne (a champion flower-breeder, living in Devon, U.K,) to Heidi Withers, her stepson’s fiancée, after a weekend visit. Ms Withers was apparently so shocked by the messages – which accuse her of being rude, vulgar, and committing apparently unforgivable sins such as sleeping in late and taking a second helping before being invited to do so – that she forwarded them to friends. These friends forwarded them to others, and likely before the participants knew what was happening, the conflict and the emails were being discussed in the Telegraph, the New York Times, and the Huffington Post, among other media outlets.

While no one could have predicted that email messages within an obscure British family would end up as a subject of international attention, it is worth repeating that there is no such thing as a reliably “private” email message. You simply have no way of knowing whom the recipient of your message might decide to share it with. This is just a fact of modern life. If you hold views that you don’t wish to be known generally, or have done things that you wish to remain private, don’t write about them in email.

The rumpus over Ms Bourne’s emails made me think, not so much about the perils of the internet, as about some more general problems with communication. Before transmitting any kind of message – whether on twitter, via a facebook posting, email, or handwritten note – it is essential to ask yourself what you hope to achieve by sending the message. Ms Bourne says in her email that she is writing because, “It is high time someone explained to you about good manners,” and to encourage her future daughter-in-law “for your own good” to consider enrolling in finishing school. She has adopted the classic “this is for your sake, not mine” communication strategy. But if Ms Bourne was able to be honestly self-reflective, would she really maintain that she wrote with her future daughter-in-law’s and the family’s best interests at heart? If you genuinely want to reach out and help another person, is it the best practice to confront them with a long list of their misdeeds? I suspect that Ms Bourne took a dislike to Ms Withers, was annoyed by her behaviour, and wanted to get it off her chest. And that’s OK. But she should have sought out a friend to complain to, rather than sending a message obviously intended to be hurtful.

Perhaps I’m mistaken here, and Ms Bourne really did have at heart the best interests and future happiness of her stepson and his wife. (After all, everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt.) If that was indeed the case, then next thing she needed to ask herself was, is putting all of this down in writing really the appropriate next step? One thing that email shares with old-fashioned handwritten notes is that both are monologues. The recipient has no opportunity in the moment to defend herself or explain. If you genuinely want to reach out to someone and help them, it is doubtful that a “stern talking-to,” whether delivered via email or on the finest stationery, is the ideal communication strategy.

Can your employees talk to you?

My client looked at me in exasperation. “Can they really feel as though they can’t talk to me?” I could understand his frustration. The owner of a small business with a “flat” structure, he is a genuinely nice guy who tries to be fair and thinks of himself as accessible. Why wouldn’t his employees feel like they could talk to him?

If you’re the boss and suspect that your employees may not feel comfortable approaching you, here are some things to consider:

Privacy. Is your office relatively private or can conversations be easily overheard? Some will resist approaching you if they feel the conversation might become known to others. (And it doesn’t matter how much you trust your assistant at the next desk or behind the partition. It doesn’t follow that others will necessarily feel the same way.)

Workplace Geography. Is your office set apart from the general workspace, such that it would be impossible to approach it without being seen by everyone else? People – for all kinds of different reasons – may not want to be seen “talking to the boss.”

Past history. In the past when employees have spoken with you, how have things gone? Even if it seemed the conversations went well, could you have somehow given the message that you didn’t appreciate being disturbed? If the main reason you speak with employees is to deliver reprimands, people may be reluctant to seek you out.

Do you talk to them? Maybe you’re not a “people” person. Maybe you’re more comfortable with equipment or bits of code than with conversation. If you’re uncomfortable speaking with employees, some will pick up on this and avoid talking to you, if only to spare you possible discomfort. If you suspect that you may have acquired such a reputation, the best way to counter it is to take the initiative and initiate conversation with others. You don’t have to make drastic changes. Make an attempt to have a short conversation with a different person each day. Once people see that they can have a conversation with you about matters unrelated to work, they may feel more comfortable coming to you with more sensitive topics.

You’re still the boss. No matter how great of a person you are and how approachable you make yourself, some people will always find it hard to talk to you.