Controversies over bullying have smattered headlines in recent years. New awareness has sparked a broad conversation about behaviors in schools, workplaces, and communities that may alienate or cause undue psychological stress to students, co-workers, and community members. Currently a debate is taking place as to whether new laws might address the issue of workplace bullying. Importantly, these public exchanges have stimulated new energy to address bullying, and new creative discourses about how individuals and institutions can respond to bullying.
Mediation is an incredible tool – it must be pretty clear that I believe strongly in its capability to aid in conflict transformation, problem solving, and building more constructive communication environments. However, no matter its proven efficacy, it nevertheless remains important for those in the field to have critical conversations to examine how and when various conflict resolution tools, like mediation, are appropriate to employ.
In an issue of Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Moira Jenkins responded to debates she witnessed at an International Workplace Bullying Conference and a Mediation Conference, regarding the rightful place of mediation in addressing workplace bullying. Her response offers us useful insights into understanding workplace bullying as a question of conflict.
Bullying is as yet a largely amorphous concept, which makes it difficult to address. At its core, bullying is difficult to nail down, particularly because it is usually understood to constitute a cumulative experience, made up of repeated behaviors that occur over time. In Europe researchers have defined some clear guiding principles of what constitutes workplace bullying, such as “repeated exposure to negative behaviors that are specifically directed at a target or a group of targets…the negative behavior needs to occur on a regular (at least weekly) basis and over a particular time period (six months).” However, in the US the normative definition of bullying is still in flux. Sometimes the term is used as a blanket for a wide range of negative behaviors, including harassment, incivility, or abusive supervision.
Working out what constitutes “bullying” is important, but in the workplace the idea is likely to play out in a subjective way. Employees might feel “bullied” before management is willing to concede that such a thing is taking place, or the particulars of the situation may not yet meet official criterion for bullying. To out rightly refuse to acknowledge such a bullying complaint is likely to lead to feelings of resentment and injustice, and should thus be handled very carefully.
While bullying is often understood as negative or predatory behavior that stems from the intention (or perceived intention) to be hurtful, “most workplace bullying emerges from an escalation of workplace conflicts.” This is where mediation enters the picture – if assisted dialogue can encourage transformation of the conflict, the bullying behaviors might also be dealt with. The key is to use mediation early, before a pattern of behavior emerges and the climate is tainted.
However, one of the pointed challenges to mediating bullying disputes is finding a way to adequately account for the “antecedents” in place. Elements of the work environment, or the conflict climate, may be likely to foster the emergence of bullying behavior. Jenkins tells us “organizational dynamics has been established as one of the contributing factors in workplace bullying.” Mediation can have the effect of individualizing a conflict, focusing on the individual or interpersonal behaviors and exchanges. If mediation is going to address bullying, it is essential to find a way to address the context, and avoid encouraging disputants to internalize environmental elements.
Power, an integral element to conflict climate, plays a key role in employment disputes and workplace bullying. Often bullying is a result of conflict between two people with different levels of institutional power. The differential may be obvious, such as between a boss and an employee, but there are more subtle power differentials that can occur due to seniority, skill/knowledge, job security, race, gender, sexuality, age, or ability.  While power imbalances are frequently encountered in mediations, this poses a challenge to mediating bullying disputes. Jenkins argues that at some point, the power relations may reach a point where mediation is no longer appropriate.
Workplace culture and norms can also have an influential role in workplace bullying, especially when a majority bullies as a way of enforcing a dominant cultural norm. If inappropriate behaviors are normalized (e.g. sexist or racist commentary, overly competitive verbal take downs), even reacting to them can cause further isolation for the target. These things may require a much broader response in order to deal with the bullying problem.
Further, the dynamics of workplace bullying as conflict are exceedingly complex. Over time, if the dynamic is allowed to carry on, it can become difficult to discern between the bully and the bullied. “Upwards bullying” – in which an individual who is allocated more institutional authority is constantly harassed for having it or using it within the appropriate parameters of his or her position – can result in the person dubbed a “bully” being the person who is truly being bullied.
In the end, Jenkins tells us that there’s no clear cut way to know whether mediation is the right response to every incident or pattern of workplace bullying. However, instituting a practice of pre-mediation assessment can help to provide a mediator with the appropriate information concerning the complaint, allowing him or her to determine how to approach mediation, or whether a different route should be suggested.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.