When Mediation is Not the Answer

workplace intimidation

When I was a very young teacher working in a tiny school, it became obvious that there was something dodgy about my principal and his use of school money. Put simply, he was in personal financial strife - robbing Peter to pay Paul and he was using the school’s checkbook to pay personal accounts in the town. As I was the 2nd signatory to the account, more than once I was asked to sign a blank cheque. I may have only been in my early 20s but I knew that that wasn't right and I sought some advice from a very wise aunt who suggested I contact the District Superintendent and let him know what was happening.

The Superintendent eventually called me to meet and made me repeat the story about signing blank checks. He quizzed me intently about whether I was sure that what this person was doing was fraudulent because these were very serious allegations. He made me feel very small, very frightened, and very young but I was able to give him several examples of James (not his real name) using the school's business account as his own personal bank. I told him about the time James went to Perth to pick up the school's very first computer and returned having cashed the cheque that was made out to the computer company and leased the computer over FIVE years – with the school to pay the lease payments.

Understandably I was very anxious talking to this very much older man in a position of power about my boss, but the District Superintendent appeared to take it very seriously and promised to do something. What he decided to do in his wisdom was to organise a meeting for myself and James to sit together in mediation. I was absolutely distraught. I did not want to sit with my boss and mediate our differences. James was a really nice guy who I enjoyed being in the company of but he was defrauding the system. Mediation assumes that there are either two people at fault or there's an interpersonal issue between two people that needs to be sorted out by a third party. I had absolutely no interpersonal issues with this man, I just was very concerned that he was robbing our very small and poor school.

This story and all the feelings associated with it rushed back to me this week. A woman I know had reported a very serious incident to her direct line manager, a senior and experienced male leader. This woman, let’s call her Emily, had been sent abusive messages by another male staff member (who she line managed) and while there was history of this person sending late night messages, these were particularly vitriolic. Emily was clear to her boss that she wished for this person to be reported to the appropriate authority within the organization for misconduct. To cut a long story short - instead of reporting the incident, her leader chose not to seek formal advice and then attempted to minimize the situation and arrange mediation. 

workplace dominance

On what planet is it appropriate to send aggressive and threatening messages in the middle of the night to any female staff member and for that to be worthy of mediation rather than (instant) dismissal?!

What possible excuse does this man have to intimidate his female colleague in her own home at night?  The boss’s reaction showed no understanding of what it was like to be a woman, let alone a female leader. (There is more to this story that I can’t share but it’s fair to say that the Boys Club culture is alive and well at the school) At worst, he was victim blaming – you must have done something to deserve this attack??  And in this mediation, when this man’s actions clearly breached a number of organizational conduct expectations, the victim was expected to sit in the same room as the accused and listen to “his side of the story” and find a way to “move forward”.

She refused.

In my workshops, I teach leaders and managers that if there is a rule, policy, or expectation that has been breached, then HAVE THE CONVERSATION!

And … if the breach involves an allegation of harassment, bullying, or intimidation, you should believe the victim. It is not good enough to be reminded to apply the Scott Morrison test, “would I tolerate this for my wife and daughters?”


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