Case Studies

Resolving a case of sexual harassment

Some background

HR Protocol was approached by an organisation from the public sector who had received an informal complaint from a female member of staff who was alleging sexual harassment. An investigation into the complaint had found that it was possible that inappropriate comments had been made on a number of occasions by a male colleague of the complainant.

Since the incident the female (let’s call her Michelle) had consciously avoided her aggressor (let’s call him Derek). Michelle made sure she was never alone with Derek and she only spoke to him through other colleagues.

From the conclusions of the investigation one of the recommendations was that mediation should be offered to the two parties concerned in order for them to have an open and honest conversation about what had happened and for that conversation to take place in a safe environment.

The mediation process

Once the date of the mediation day had been agreed HR Protocol’s mediator contacted both parties by phone to briefly discuss the structure of the day and to alleviate any concerns that the parties had. If was also confirmed with each participant that they were entering into the process voluntarily.

Both parties were then sent a copy of the Mediation Guide and an agenda for the mediation day. The guide included a confidentiality agreement and some questions to assist each party to prepare for the mediation session by think about what outcomes they were looking for in order for their working relationship to improve.

On the mediation day the mediator met with each participant separately. In this initial meeting the parties were asked to describe what they had experienced, how it had made them feel and what they wanted to be done differently so that a more positive working relationship could be established for the future. To encourage each party to discuss these areas the mediator uses a variety of different techniques.

Michelle talked about how she had felt degraded and that Derek seemed to have no respect for her as a professional colleague. She had also been upset and then angry at being treated in the way that she felt she had been. She wanted to know why Derek thought he could treat her as he had and seek assurances that it would never happen again.

Derek said he had felt terrible that he had offended his colleague and friend and until being told of the investigation he had had no idea that he had upset Michelle at all. He also said that the investigation had been a shock to him as he had no idea that anything was wrong and that he wanted to rebuild a professional relationship with his colleague as they used to get on and work well together.

The mediator then met with each party again separately. This time to concentrate on what they wanted to say to the other in the joint meeting arranged for the afternoon.

Michelle wanted to explain to Derek how his comments had made her feel and to understand why he thought it was alright to show such a lack of respect for her. Michelle was adamant that the last thing she wanted was an apology.

Derek wanted to apologise for any ill feeling he had caused and then to apologise again. He also wanted to explain that he was unaware that he had said anything inappropriate but that it was just the usual banter. He wanted to tell Michelle that he enjoyed working with her and respected the job that she did.

After a break of lunch Michelle, Derek and the mediator met together. The participants were reminded of the ground rules they had agreed to adhere to throughout the day. The rules are; to be respectful to all involved, to listen, and to be honest.

At the start of the meeting there were obvious tensions, as understandably the situation can make the participants nervous but the mediator is there to provide support and encouragement to both participants. To make the initial conversation easier the mediator asked each party to make an opening statement to the other and the other agrees to listen and not interrupt. Once both Michelle and Derek had made their statements the mediator summarised their thoughts and feelings and highlighted areas of common ground.

This then gave Michelle and Derek the opportunity to discuss their differences more freely. They were clearly relieved to have ‘broken the ice’ and had a really positive discussion for the rest of the afternoon.

At times the mediator would summarise their discussions and encourage both participants to explore what they are going to do differently in the future to ensure the situation does not arise again.

The outcome

The things that they agreed to do, which mainly centred on better communications, were then recorded in the form of a Mediation Agreement. The purpose of the agreement is so there are some guidelines within which the parties have agreed to behave and also it acts as an aide memoire if the relationship goes off track at all.

At the end of the session both Michelle and Derek were feeling much more positive about working together and they also expressed their surprised enjoyment at having worked it through for themselves.

Over the following 10 months the mediator checked in with both Michelle and Derek to find out if the agreement was working and to see if there was any further support either of them needed. Each time there was a very positive response that all was going well and they were really pleased they used mediation to get them back on track.