Workplace Mediation – Is it the Holy Grail?

April 17th, 2012

I was delighted to be invited to speak recently to members of the SE Wales CIPD Branch about Workplace and Employment Mediation. I outlined my journey of discovery towards understanding and appreciating its benefits and also to highlight when and when not to use.

With around 30 years experience of dealing with workplace disputes I have become more and more convinced that workplace mediation does provide a better way to resolve disputes in many cases. I have seen suggestions that managing and resolving conflict better could solve all our economic problems. Whilst I do believe it has a real value and that it should be more widely used , even I would not quite go this far!

So what are the pro’s and con’s and what are the differences between mediation and other of  dispute resolution processes?

Mediation v disciplinary or grievance procedures.

The main difference between mediation and formal or legal processes is that mediation deals with the underlying emotional aspects of a dispute. In a disciplinary or grievance process the concern is more with the factual issues and coming to some sort of findings or decision. The result of this is that the positions of the parties become ever more entrenched and defensive. In my experience the procedures can often take on a life of their own with grievances being met by counter allegations. Also the outcome may not ultimately satisfy anyone.

As a mediation is conducted by a neutral and independent mediator and on a confidential and without prejudice basis it provides a safe environment in which the real issues can be uncovered and dealt with. This is far more likely to resolve the underlying issues and maintain a working relationship. To me these differences are illustrated by the following diagram.

The complete solution?

Although I firmly believe that mediation is a better solution in many situations it is not the right solution in every situation. It would not be appropriate where:-

  • Where the parties have not agreed to mediation. It is an entirely voluntary process and it is important that individuals willingly participate; indeed this is an important first step in itself.
  • It should not be used as an alternative to line management. Many situations can be better resolved by line managers utilising conflict management skills themselves, even more can be avoided by line managers engaging appropriately with employees in the first place. However where this has broken down and individuals are locked into a conflict situation then a neutral third-party can have a real benefit.
  • In situations where there is serious or gross misconduct it may be inappropriate to mediate. In such situations there may be a need to deal with matters under formal processes and for others to understand that such behaviours and conduct will not be tolerated.

Conclusion

So whilst mediation is not quite the Holy Grail it is preferable to the formal or legal processes that many of us are more used to in many situations. I can now look back and see many situations where I was involved in litigating disputes when mediation could have been a much better option and clearly should have been considered. Most importantly, had mediation been successful in these situations it would have involved significantly less financial cost to both parties but also less damage to the health and well-being of those involved.

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