Our Controversial Sexual Harassment Case Study

Anna Stobart and I were recently asked by a prominent Human Resources journal to provide an example of what a mediation around sexual harassment could look like and how it might work.

The editors (respected HR professionals) came back to us and said that they all thought that such a case should not be mediated. It was a clear case for disciplinary action. The man should be fired.

We refer to this case study in our article in the latest edition of the UK Journal of Mediation, so have reproduced it here for those who wish to have a fuller picture.

Here’s the fictitious case study that led them to this conclusion:


Fictitious sexual harassment mediation case

By Mia Forbes Pirie and Anna Stobart.

Jenny came to see Anna for a confidential chat.  She had recently applied for a more senior role and been successful.   She explained that she was enjoying her new role but she felt her boss, Nick, was becoming too familiar.   He had invited her out on a couple of occasions for a drink, which she had declined. He had also shared personal information about his difficult marriage.   The tipping point had been one morning when he had come up behind her and rubbed her shoulders saying that he thought she was looking tense.   She had felt deeply uncomfortable and asked him to stop.  His response had been dismissive.

As the senior HR Manager Anna asked Jenny what she wanted to do.   Jenny didn’t want to confront Nick directly and felt the grievance route would be “too much”. Anna suggested mediation. Although a trained mediator herself, Anna knew both parties well, so decided to call in an external mediator, Mia.

Mia spoke to Jenny first to understand the situation from her perspective. With Jenny’s permission, after listening to Nick, Mia told him a little about how Jenny had felt. Nick was mortified. He had not intended to make Jenny feel uncomfortable but recognised that his relationship issues at home had probably impacted the way he treated Jenny and also made him more defensive. Confidentially, he told Mia that he found Jenny attractive and felt she was easy to talk to. Nick led a team which included six women and he and Mia discussed how he interacted with other women on the team. He acknowledged that, since his marriage had started going downhill, he behaved differently with those he found more attractive. He was lonely and missed close female company. Nick agreed that coaching in this area would help.  In a joint session Nick apologised to Jenny for his behaviour and for making her uncomfortable and he told her about the coaching. They agreed the boundaries of a new working relationship and to a check-in in a month’s time to see how things were going.  Nick and Jenny also agreed that Mia could share almost all the information they had given her with Anna whom they both trusted.

The mediation resulted in an agreement between the two parties setting the boundaries for their working relationship.  Nick got coaching. When Anna heard what had been going on with Nick, she offered him marriage counselling through the organisation’s EAP (employee assistance programme) scheme.

Using mediation and coaching meant that the two parties were able to work together successfully and Nick was able to develop personally with support in how he treated his colleagues and also dealing with what, for him, was a challenging home situation.

However, the situation could have been different had Jenny said she could no longer work with Nick.  In that case, options would have included transfers for one or the other or even losing one or both staff members.

As we mentioned in our article, we cannot help but wonder if the editors who did not think our example should be mediated came to that conclusion partly on the basis of information that would never have come to light without the ‘mediation’.

In our example, had the case not gone to mediation, it is likely that the man (if confronted) would have denied all of the allegations. Had disciplinary procedures been the only option presented to the victim, she may have chosen to withdraw her complaint. Either way, the situation could have been left to fester.

Mediation provides the opportunity for a confidential, frank, cards-on-the table discussion.  A certain amount of confidentiality allows people to reveal information they might not otherwise reveal. When people admit to and apologise for their mistakes, this can be deeply transformative. The victim hears her concerns validated but also any misunderstandings can be cleared up (and there are often misunderstandings).  The perpetrator (if he has done something wrong) learns the impact he has had on the other person.

In a recent UK Mediation Journal article, Anna and I explore in more depth our belief that mediation is not akin to ‘sweeping allegations under the carpet’, and that there is potentially plenty of justice in mediating sexual harassment cases. You can read our full article in edition 7 of the UK Mediation Journal.