Why bother with Workplace Mediation; too soft and fluffy?

May 9th, 2013

In the current economic climate there are more important things to worry about; right? Wrong; the cost of unresolved workplace conflict is staggering and effective mediation or conflict management can improve the bottom line.

The Rise of Workplace Conflict

There is little doubt that workplace conflict is on the increase; the rise in employment claims, enquiries to ACAS and a recent CIPD survey being evidence of this.

We can all speculate on the reasons why but such things as the increase in employment law regulation, an increased awareness of employees rights, the fast pace of technological changes, globalisation, cultural differences, economic climate are all contributing factors.

All employers I speak to say that employment law is a “complete minefield”. In some cases this has led to a reluctance of line managers to take any action for fear of getting it wrong with the result that matters can be left to drift. In reality this invariably makes matters worse.

The Business Case

The business case for mediation is extremely strong.

Statistics show that managers spend 24% of their time dealing with conflict. That statistic is alarming; if this time could be significantly reduced managers could use this time far more profitably for the benefit of the business.

Disciplinary or grievance procedures are time-consuming and therefore costly. In addition they are often inconclusive or worsen the underlying conflict as parties become defensive and positions entrenched. In my experience grievances can often take up many days of management time and resource and rarely end in a positive or satisfactory outcome.

In addition, conflict which is unresolved leads to a number of costs such as:-

  • employees being less effective at work with a loss of productivity
  • increased sickness absence levels,
  • a negative impact on employees’ health and wellbeing with sometimes alarming consequences to individuals’ health,
  • there may be a loss of talent and experience and additional recruitment and training cost,
  • management time and legal costs,
  • stress and anxiety for those involved (and possibly those around them).

Most mediations can be completed within one day. Success rates of 90% are bandied about without a great deal of empirical evidence and there are debates about what success means. My own personal experience is that some form of agreement or resolution is reached in the vast majority (92%) of the cases I have mediated but even where this is not possible there is some personal learning which may prevent similar situations arising in the future.  However you evaluate it mediation is quicker, less costly  and far more likely to achieve a satisfactory and lasting result.

How Mediation Works

Mediation is an entirely confidential and without prejudice process with an independent third-party acting as the mediator. Unlike a formal or legal process, mediation deals with the emotional impact of the conflict rather than simply dealing with a factual dispute (see below). It therefore provides a far safer and more conducive environment for the real underlying issues to be voiced, heard and resolved.

Mediation Principles.jpg

The process focuses on the parties themselves reaching an agreement which is acceptable to both parties. The mediator does not impose a solution or judge who is right or wrong. Rather the role of the mediator is to facilitate and manage the process and encourage the parties to think of alternative explanations for actions or options for outcomes.

Whilst the process has a much better chance of the parties being able to move on and repair a working relationship it may also in some cases allow individuals to leave an organisation with dignity avoiding damage to reputation. I have seen far too many examples of unnecessary damage to both individuals and organisations which could have been avoided for the benefit of both.

Mediation in Action

As an example of how powerful mediation can be, a case study referred to in the recent CIPD survey concerned an in-house mediation scheme being introduced to two brands, as a pilot, within the Arcadia group. During the pilot the number of grievances involving relationships between managers and subordinates reduced by 50% whilst there was an increase of 14% in other areas of the business. Of the 14 issues referred to mediation, all but two were resolved successfully. Most grievances in the organisation took around 3 weeks to resolve and significant HR and management time so a 50% reduction in the number of grievances generated significant cost savings.  Interestingly, the scheme also lead to employees accepting that problems could be effectively resolved by talking about them and that they themselves had a role to play; rather than a view that “someone else” would deal with it.

Conclusion

Mediation is obviously not appropriate in every situation. However having witnessed first-hand the limitations of the formal and legal processes and the power of mediation in practice, I am more and more convinced that mediation and conflict management skills should be used more widely than they are. Particularly in these difficult times no employer can afford the impact of unresolved conflict. Further, if the issue can be resolved without the cost of formal and legal proceedings, that surely has to be worth bothering with?  I would urge employers to consider mediation at the earliest stage possible, I have mediated disputes where issues have been ongoing for up to six years and considerable damage has been done to relationships over many years and as a result of formal processes worsening the position.

Finally, mediation is not a soft option for those involved in the process. It is both intense and emotional but it is a process that brings real rewards and benefits and most importantly puts the power in the hands of those in conflict.

For further information of the mediation services that I offer and related training full details can be found at www.alisonlove.co.uk

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