Can bullying be mediated?
Dec 15, 2010
This question has arisen recently because the American Arbitration Association (AAA) and Alternative Dispute Resolution Consortium (ADRC) have recommended that colleges and universities provide mediation as an option for faculty who feel bullied by their colleagues. Workplace bullying as defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI – see below) seems to me to rarely be negotiable - or mediable – especially to those experiencing it. However, based in large part on my involvement in helping establish a restorative justice program at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the late 1990’s, I believe there are two specific practices from that tradition that could be used to facilitate meaningful and potentially even healing encounters in these situations. These practices differ from the more familiar forms of mediation and the conditions required for success are very specific.
As a university ombuds I have found mediation is often an effective way to help staff and faculty to manage and/or resolve workplace disputes. Sometimes both people have the same concern(s) and sometimes their concerns differ. But in most disputes I have mediated, both parties seemed to contribute fairly equally to the creation of the dispute. As a result, they could usually participate fairly equally in developing solutions. And agreements they made to resolve their disputes – even when they included relationship issues such as respect, trust, or communication - usually seemed balanced, as well.
....If laws and policies defining and prohibiting workplace bullying were established – especially if accompanied by awareness campaigns and/or training, it would probably help people develop a more common understanding of bullying behavior and its impacts. Anti-bullying laws and policies would define engaging in this behavior as wrongdoing. The most common western approach to dealing with wrongdoing, especially in the criminal justice system, assumes the proper response is to determine: 1) whether any laws or policies have been violated, and if so, which ones; 2) who was guilty of violating them; and 3) what punishment should be administered for the violation(s). This assumption is rooted in the principles of retributive justice. But laws and policies could also set up the possibility of using an approach rooted in the principles of restorative justice.
Restorative justice conceives of wrongdoing as behavior that harms individuals and communities, rather than as violations against “the state.” For the purposes of this discussion, a restorative approach would focus on identifying: 1) who has been harmed by bullying; 2) exactly how she, he, or they were harmed; and 3) how to best repair that harm. One restorative practice that might be used to address workplace bullying is victim offender mediation. An individual who engaged in bullying behavior and one who experienced it would meet together with a mediator to address the questions above and develop an agreement about what the person responsible could do to repair the harm she or he has done. Another restorative approach, based on family group conferencing, would include supporters (colleagues, friends, family members, etc.) of both victims and offenders, and other affected community members, which in this case is likely to be colleagues or bystanders, in a facilitated discussion. Both of these processes would result in agreements which, to the greatest extent possible, focus on repairing the harm done by bullying. And in both processes harm – especially psychological harm - is sometimes repaired as much or more by what occurs during the facilitated encounter as by the completion of agreement items by offenders.