ADR SPOTLIGHT: Facilitating positive change in the workplace

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By Laura A. Athens

Facilitation can be an invaluable tool to promote a positive work environment and prevent escalation of employment disputes. In contrast to mediation, which focuses on disputes that have reached an impasse or resulted in filing of a formal complaint, facilitation may be used at the inception of an employment conflict. Facilitation is particularly effective in addressing workplace climate issues, such as incivility, bullying, harassment and disputes concerning promotion, salary and benefits.

Workplace Concerns

Incivility and bullying are prevalent in the workplace. According to a 2017 online survey of over 1,000 workers conducted by Workplace Bullying Institute, nineteen percent of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work. The survey defined abusive conduct as repeated mistreatment or conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, verbally abusive or involves work sabotage. Twenty percent of bullying incidents involved an underlying discrimination component.

The Workplace Bullying Institute survey further indicated that twenty-nine percent of workers remained silent about the abusive conduct. Only 18% filed a formal complaint and 71% of employers who were informed of the abuse took steps that were not beneficial. The employers conducted "sham" investigations that did not include interviews of key individuals and accorded greater weight to the perpetrator's version of events. The adverse impact on targets was significant. Fifty-four percent of targets either quit, were terminated or transferred to a different job within the workplace. In contrast, a negative impact on the perpetrator's job only occurred 36% of the time.

Utilizing facilitation can engender significant and enduring climate changes in the work environment. It is aimed at improving the workplace by fostering candid communication and joint problem solving. The facilitator's job is to ensure that all key stakeholders have an opportunity to be heard, options are explored, and sustainable solutions are reached through a collaborative process.

Pre-facilitation Interviews and Work Environment Survey

Initially, the facilitator meets with the employer or supervisor who requested facilitation to get a sense of the nature and scope of employment issues. Through this initial interview, the facilitator learns about the history, traditions and practices of the workplace. Having a sense of the "back story" helps the facilitator work more effectively with the employer and employees when it comes time to facilitate a group discussion.

Conducting pre-facilitation interviews with the employer and employees provides the facilitator with a meaningful perspective on the work environment culture and climate. Based on the initial meeting with the employer, the facilitator formulates open ended questions to provide structure for individual interviews.

During the pre-facilitation interviews, it is essential to maintain confidentiality. This allows individuals to feel free to candidly express their concerns without fear of censure or reprisal. The facilitator provides individuals with the assurance that anything discussed during the interviews will remain confidential unless permission is specifically granted to share information with another. The private interviews with a neutral third party provide both employers and employees with an opportunity to reflect on their work environment and offer a safe space to express their interests, concerns and priorities.

A work environment survey can yield useful information. Surveys can be as simple as asking employees to endorse or rate a list of positive and negative workplace characteristics, such as whether the current workplace is collaborative, competitive, confrontational, creative, respectful, mistrusting, disengaged, disrespectful, harmonious or secretive. Follow up questions may include the same list of characteristics with a focus on priorities for the future work environment.

To encourage candid communication, it is important to convey to participants that any information obtained through the individual interviews or a survey will remain anonymous while the results will be compiled and reported to all stakeholders without identifying the particular source.

Facilitated Small Group Meetings

Another step in the facilitation process may include facilitated small group meetings. This component can be especially useful when the workplace contains subgroups whose interests are closely aligned. Careful consideration of the composition of the small groups is crucial. Typically, the objectives of the small group meeting would be discussing prevalent interests and concerns raised during the individual interviews, selecting priorities, building consensus and agreeing on recommendations to present to the larger group at a subsequent facilitation.

At this stage of the facilitation process, employers often find it helpful for the facilitator to prepare and disseminate a written summary describing information obtained through the individual interviews, survey and small group meetings. Dissemination of the facilitator's summary with preliminary recommendations well in advance of the large group facilitation gives everyone an opportunity to digest the information and reflect on potential solutions.

The invitation to a facilitation meeting typically contains the purpose of the meeting, an agenda or specific objectives, anticipated outcomes and may include any pre-meeting readings or other requirements. The invitation also sets forth a clear timeframe for the meeting.

Facilitated Large Group Meeting

Creating a safe and energizing environment for the facilitation is essential. Similar to mediation, the setting and configuration of the meeting room for the facilitation are important considerations. Rooms with windows to the outside, natural lighting and pleasant wall hangings will be more comfortable. Arranging tables and chairs to ensure all participants can see and hear one another is more conducive to constructive conversation and active engagement.

Providing snacks and beverages can help ward off "hangry" behavior. Having props available, such as a flip chart, white board, markers, note cards and sticky dots will encourage creativity and interaction. An ice breaker exercise is an engaging way to begin the facilitation and primes the participants for active engagement.

At the inception of the group facilitation, the facilitator greets and acknowledges participants as they enter the room. When the meeting begins, the facilitator repeats the purpose and meeting objectives to ensure everyone is on same page. Ground rules or protocols for the meeting are reviewed and accepted. During the facilitation, the facilitator's role is to ensure that participants have an opportunity to be heard and the meeting progresses in a productive manner.

The facilitator also serves as a role model of respect by demonstrating attentive listening without judgment, empathy and good communication skills. The facilitator ensures that the focus of the meeting remains on the intended purpose and objectives for the meeting. The facilitator guides the group through consensus building with a calm and confident demeanor. If blaming or negative comments occur, the facilitator defuses and reframes them to focus on the positive and future solutions.

A good facilitator encourages transparency and helps the parties maintain or build trust. The facilitator does not try to take over the meeting or impose his or her own viewpoint. Instead, the facilitator points out commonalities, brings attention to areas of agreement and assists participants in understanding each other's perspectives without becoming defensive. The facilitator clarifies expectations, requests further explanation, addresses misunderstandings, redirects or slows down the conversation and supports the group in reaching productive decisions. Like mediation, facilitation focuses on the future, rather than the past, to move the participants forward and determine what needs to be done.

Because the group wants results, the ultimate goal of facilitation is a commitment to action. Although review of climate, culture and workplace concerns is important, it becomes a meaningless exercise if no action is taken. The facilitator has a responsibility to help the group develop a plan of action to operationalize consensuses reached.

After the large group facilitation, the facilitator frequently prepares a summary of decisions reached and a description of the agreed upon course of action. If assistance is needed with implementation of the plan, the facilitator can serve as a valuable ongoing resource.

Facilitation can be transformative. It permits employers and employees to engage in authentic dialogue and reach collective decisions aligned with their core values. Employers should consider facilitation as a means of conflict resolution when faced with bullying, harassment or salary and promotion issues. The facilitator should be selected with care to ensure the facilitator has the expertise and experience to generate positive change. A good facilitator can save the employer time, energy and expense by efficiently and effectively resolving the dispute and restoring a productive and collaborative work environment.

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Laura A. Athens is an attorney, mediator and arbitrator in Farmington Hills. Athens provides alternative dispute resolution (ADR) services in a variety of matters. She mediates and facilitates special and general education, vocational rehabilitation, university faculty grievance, employment, guardianship and disability rights cases. Athens previously served as a Hearing Officer in special education and vocational rehabilitation due process hearings. As an adjunct professor at Wayne State University Law School, Athens taught education law, health law and bioethics. Athens also taught Legal Research and Writing at Washington University School of Law. She is an associate of Professional Resolution Experts of Michigan LLC (PREMi, https://premiadr.com/) and has served on the State Bar of Michigan Alternative Dispute Resolution Council and as a former chair of the Oakland County Bar Association ADR Committee. Athens has published numerous articles on education law, mediation and arbitration and frequently lectures and appears on cable TV programs regarding ADR and school-related topics.

Published: Fri, Nov 30, 2018

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