As in any relationship, conflict in the workplace is natural and inevitable. Conflict can also be a healthy response to an unsustainable dynamic, one that involves people working together with various personalities, backgrounds and work styles. It seems only recently that research and media attention around workplace conflict and harassment has started to emerge. It is appropriate, therefore, that as a large organization responsible for protecting our members’ well-being, we respond to the concerns arising from conflict in our worksites from a restorative approach. Conflict in any relationship can be a starting point for reflection and positive change if it’s navigated in a timely and sensitive manner. Not dealing with a conflict at work can often lead to a poisoned work environment, and also has the potential for the conflict to snowball into a situation where an entire department or even an entire school becomes toxic, making it that much more difficult to untangle and repair the damage. In addition, the emotional exhaustion associated with allowing conflicts to fester can be debilitating and may lead to medical issues and stress leave.
OSSTF/FEESO’s Mediation Services Resource Bank (MSRB), a service that is unique to our Federation, consists of 10 OSSTF/FEESO members from a cross-section of job classes from various regions of the province, who are trained and experienced mediators. These mediators volunteer their time to conduct alternative dispute resolution (ADR) for members in conflict. Members of MSRB also provide ADR training for local OSSTF/FEESO District leaders in how and when to intervene in the early stages of workplace conflict before requiring a referral to MSRB.
The services of MSRB are available at no cost to OSSTF/FEESO members in conflict with one another and the process for accessing mediation is straightforward. However, before MSRB can get involved, the following criteria need to be met:
• A specific conflict exists between two or more members.
• The conflict is not already being addressed through other procedures.
• Each member voluntarily enters into the mediation process in good faith with a genuine desire to resolve the issues.
Once these criteria are met, the branch president/workplacerep makes a request to their District office for a referral to be made to MSRB at the provincial OSSTF/FEESO office. Once the referral is received, the Chair of MSRB vets the case to ensure mediation is appropriate. In the majority of cases, a mediator is subsequently assigned to co-ordinate the mediation with the members in conflict.
There are, however, a few scenarios where mediation is not appropriate—in particular if a member has not voluntarily entered into the mediation and/or has felt coerced into participating, or if the mediation process is thought to be being used for reasons other than to meaningfully attempt to resolve the issues. In other words, mediation is not intended as a vehicle to trigger discipline or seek reprisal, and the mediator will abandon the process if there is any attempt to coopt its authenticity or legitimacy.
Assuming the circumstances are appropriate to mediate, a date and location (usually arranged off-siteto maintain neutrality and confidentiality) are confirmed. The amount of time a mediation takes is hard to predict due to the number of members who may be involved and the complexity of the issues. A mediation involving two members with straightforward issues could take a few hours, while a large group with complex issues and multiple conflicts could take a full day—in some rare cases, large-scale conflicts have taken two to three days to resolve.
Workplace conflict is not something you should have to live with, and it’s certainly not something you have to try to resolve on your own.
Although it’s difficult to describe a typical mediation, some common elements that have triggered conflicts referred to MSRB have included:
• Personality/work-style differences.
• Members in positions of responsibility misunderstanding their role.
• Adverse reports.
• Sharing of resources.
• Vague job duties/descriptions.
• Mental health.
Although there is a standard Seven-Step process for conducting mediations, each mediation takes on its own life, depending on the mediator’s style and other variables that come up throughout the process. However, once the members are sitting face to face, a common framework would look something like this:
• Each party gives his/her description of facts, feelings and perceptions; fully heard without interruption.
• Determining interests of each participant.
• Organizing, prioritizing issues.
• Generating/evaluating options for moving forward.
The key to any successful mediation is genuinely listening to the other perspectives, acknowledging the emotions of others and focusing on realistic options for resolving the issues. Staying stuck in the past or quibbling over minutiae is usually not a productive way forward. With the success rate of cases brought forward to MSRB at over 90 per cent, it’s not hard to appreciate the benefits of the resource OSSTF/FEESO has made available. And the benefits are many! Most importantly, members benefit from having available a professional service that provides confidential restorative alternative dispute resolution.
Members can be reassured there is support available to them if they are immersed in a conflict or hostile relationship with another member, while also knowing the information they provide to MSRB during the entire process will never be disclosed. This confidentiality is paramount in allowing our members to speak candidly, without fear of reprisal from their employer or the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT). In addition, this service provides for a safe, facilitative and neutral process for OSSTF/FEESO members to participate in, with the hope they can go back to work with their issues resolved and relationships restored.
Secondary to this, both OSSTF/FEESO and the employer benefit from the services offered by MSRB. By helping to prevent any potential discipline, OSSTF/FEESO benefits from not absorbing any grievance/arbitration costs and the employer benefits from not having to use its own resources to intervene and/or absorb costs associated with medical leaves.
Workplace conflict is not something you should have to live with, and it’s certainly not something you have to try to resolve on your own. If you feel that mediation might be appropriate, contact your Branch President to get the process started.
ILLUSTRATION: Sandra Dionisi