Resolving Conflict - For employers and employees

Empathy, impartiality and embracing a Māori worldview are guiding principles for MBIE Take Matua, Senior Employment Mediator, Trisha Harrison-Hunt. Kathy Ombler finds out more. 

Trisha Harrison-Hunt (Ngāti Porou) absolutely loves the work she does.  

“I love helping people find a resolution that allows them to move forward, at the same time hold onto their mana, their dignity. I have many examples of people who come in stressed and anxious, who feel they have not been treated well by each other, then when their issues are resolved, say they wish they had come to mediation earlier,” says Trisha. 

“To be the best I can for both parties is my aim every time I meet in mediation,” she says. “It’s the essence of what the public service is about.” 

Trisha has specialised in employment dispute resolution for the past 16 years. Previously, she worked for 25 years in trade unions, for 12 of them as a Takawaenga (Māori field officer) for NZEI Te Riu Roa. 

“This was unique in that both principals and teachers were our members. That was good grounding for me to understand both sides of a story.” 

Trisha decided that employment mediation was a good transition from this work, so in 2007, she became an accredited mediator with the Resolution Institute and moved to MBIE. “And while I didn’t have a legal background, I did bring experience with the Employment Relations Act (and its previous iterations), plus a range of life skills to the role,” she says. 

“I am a mother of five and have eleven grandchildren. I have always worked in the Māori community, that is important to me. And from early in my life, I have been elevated to leadership roles, so I just have that innate sense that I need to assist or help people.” 

Resolution through mediation, according to the Employment Relations Act, is the first option for settlement of an employment dispute. If cases are not resolved, they advance to the Employment Relations Authority, then the Employment Court. “The legislation deliberately established mediation to forgo a formal process. Often people lodge a claim direct to the Authority, and they’ll be directed back to us,” says Trisha.  

“The key components of our work are that we’re independent, neutral, and impartial. We are here to assist employers and employees with resolving employment problems in a confidential, non-prejudiced environment.” Formal process aside, both parties need to understand that we have a set procedure to follow in order to get to a resolution, she adds. 

“First, we do pre-mediation with each of the parties. We have a separate conversation, and for me, that’s important; it’s a good time to engage as a person. Then we move into ‘what are your needs, what are the things I can support you with’ in my capacity as an independent, impartial person.  

“Essentially, I’m there to assist parties to get a good result by encouraging them to have respectful conversations with each other. Some people come into mediation extremely hurt; they want to yell and scream.” 

“The number one strength for a mediator is empathy, and I mean empathy with both parties,” she says. “I like to take them back to when their employment relationship began, then move to establish why things changed. We spend time discussing the relationship breakup, and then I will move the focus to looking at options for resolution. 

“Most parties come to mediation with their position, and what they want to achieve from the process, set in their mind. I see my role as engaging them to work towards a resolution that satisfies both parties’ expectations,” she says. 

Excellent listening skills are also required. “About ninety percent of the work that I do is about connecting with people. Also, you need to have confidence. The people come into the room with a lot of stress; they need to know the person in front of them knows what they are doing.” 

Understanding employment law is desirable. “As a mediator, you might have to provide an opinion on the potential risks of being unable to settle, and what the process might look like if it is elevated to the Employment Relations Authority. The most important thing is that while we can advise, the parties are the final decision makers.” 

Holding firm to principles can be problematic. “A principle can play a part in resolution, but can also escalate an employment relationship problem to the point it isn’t settled. I try to acknowledge the principled view a party has, at the same time encourage them to consider what it might mean for the other party and ask a range of questions to explore the issue and find options. 

“Finding a solution does mean, in most situations, that both parties need to move from their initial positions.” 

For all the qualities required for mediation work, it is working with a Māori worldview that Trisha holds dearest. “If you look at Māori values, they align with the Employment Relations Act, especially in relation to ‘Good Faith’ requirements that include expectations for both parties to be open and transparent. This aligns with most peoples’ values and are significant for Māori values such as manaakitanga (taking care of each other), kotahitanga (collaboration) and mātauranga (knowledge).” 

Working with a whānau-centred approach became particularly important for Trisha during a three-year secondment with Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, Te Pūtahitanga ō te Waipounamu.  

“It was not about putting forward what we think is best for the whānau; it was about working with the whānau on their needs. This aligns well with mediation, and I took a lot of learnings from that when I came back to MBIE.” 

Trisha is currently one of a team of kaitautoko, training Disputes Resolution staff as part of MBIE’s Te ao Māori cultural competency programme. 

“My role is to encourage my colleagues starting a mediation case to understand where their parties come from and what cultural needs they have. Some people like to have a mediator who is experienced in tikanga. Some might like to start with a karakia.  

“We also support our colleagues with the pronunciation of te reo, understanding how to pronounce peoples’ names and what their names mean, so they can engage in a positive way. This programme is part of our responsibility as a Treaty partner.” 

“Māori values run in line with everything I believe in,” says Trisha. “Manaakitanga is very important to me, and if you break that down you have manaaki, which is about ensuring the mana of others, before your own. So it’s about lifting the mana of others, whoever you’re engaging with. In mediation, if someone has just shared a difficult but important part of their life, you’ll hear me say, ‘I want to acknowledge you for sharing that with me’. It can be difficult to share with someone they’ve just met, but that sharing does provide me with a greater understanding.” 

Whakawhānaungatanga, establishing relationships, is also essential. “Where are you from? Where am I from? It doesn’t matter if people are Māori or not. I will say, talk to me about your family. And it doesn’t always have to relate to the issues on the table, but I have learned it can be a really insightful way to connect, across both parties.”  

Making connections applies across all cultures, she adds. “I work with many different cultures. I always make sure I get people’s names correct and try to observe any cultural ways or differences in how people communicate.  

“Honour the Treaty, recognise diversity, both are really important. Conflict resolution is about making it as easy as possible for all parties to participate, no matter who you are, where you’re from or what you do. That’s our responsibility.” 

This article was published in the Public Sector Journal - Winter 2023, Issue 46.2.