When is mediation an appropriate response to an allegation of bullying?

What is your reaction when an employee complains that they are being bullied? Does it cross ‘a red line’ for you?  Do you swiftly explain the formal options available?  Would you consider mediation as an option?


When I raise this question for discussion half way through my mediation training programmes, it always leads to a heated discussion: “Bullying is too serious for mediation” versus “Mediation is absolutely the right approach for bullying allegations.” So which is right?  I believe that both are.


ACAS defines bullying as ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’  this includes the bully that has manipulated and destroyed their victim over a period of time; and such behaviour requires appropriate disciplinary action without delay. 



But in my own experience such cases are rare, and far more often the person who is accused of bullying is horrified that their behaviour has been interpreted this way, and the complaint is the first time that they have become aware that they are being perceived as a bully: it can be a sobering experience.  It is in these instances that mediation is often the right response, but also the most beneficial, for both the ‘bully’ and the ‘victim’. 


Mediation seeks to help the accuser to understand what has led them to feel bullied and to reflect on this from their own perspective and experience but also to consider the perspective of the alleged ‘bully’ – mediation often provides the first opportunity for this - and it can be powerful.   The mediator will also help the accused to reflect on how they have been interacting with their accuser and how this might have impacted on them - so often a significant and enlightening experience. 


From here the mediator can encourage both parties to think through and verbalize what is vital to each of them in their working relationship and why this is important to them.  If they both take the time to understand this of each other, it is likely that an agreed way forward will follow.


Most importantly for me, is the way in which mediation offers an opportunity for longer term behavioural change. If the stigma of being called a ‘bully’ is taken away, and there is a genuine desire to understand the impact of behaviour and make appropriate changes, then the parties, the organization, and mediation are all winners.


So next time you get a complaint of bullying, stop and consider if this is one of the many occasions where mediation may certainly be an appropriate response but also the best one?

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