Mediation in the Workplace: Have formal processes had their day?

November 20th, 2016

Blog photoWhat is mediation in the workplace?

Most people have heard of mediation and have their own idea of what it means to mediate in a conflict situation.

Having delivered training to many HR professionals and Line Managers I frequently hear accounts of situations where organisations are asking said HR professionals and Managers to mediate between members of staff in conflict situations. However, the accounts that I hear often are not “mediations” in the true sense of the word as they do not follow a structured process or create that important confidential environment where the parties feel able to discuss openly the things that are truly concerning them without fear of reprisal.  Also, the HR professionals and Line Managers have not had any formal conflict resolution training and find that they do not have the necessary skills that a mediator will possess, to manage the conflict.

A true mediation process will be carried out by someone independent and neutral. Many organisations now have their own in-house mediation schemes. As a company, Mediation at Work has trained in-house mediators as well as provides ongoing support to such in-house schemes. These schemes can work well provided the organisation is large enough to ensure that the person mediating has sufficient distance to the people involved in the conflict and, is neutral; providing the parties with that all-important space in which they feel able to openly talk to each other and the mediator, about their issues and concerns.

The mediation process will usually start with the mediator meeting individually with the parties to the conflict to gain an insight into the issues and concerns from each parties’ perspective. This will then be followed by a joint session where the mediator will facilitate a discussion between the parties and, using techniques such as positive reframing and skilled questioning techniques, get the parties to explore what is behind their respective positions and try to move them towards identifying shared interests.

Whilst the mediator will guide the process the parties are encouraged to come up with their own ways of resolving their differences which is very empowering for the parties in a conflict situation.

Why mediate when there is a grievance procedure in place to deal with employee’s disputes?

A grievance process is adversarial; you have two parties presenting their differing perceptions on the issues and what they believe to be the solution to the problem. You will then have the Investigating Officer who considers the evidence and imposes a solution.

The process can never provide a win: win situation for both parties as there will always be one party who is left feeling dissatisfied with the outcome.

Instead of being empowered to come up with solutions that both parties are happy with the parties in a grievance process have very little say in the outcomes.

People in a conflict situation will also tend to take up positions and present a perception of what the problem is however, when this is explored through mediation, what is often being presented as the issue is not the issue at all and it is what is underneath the surface that is important.

So what is underneath the surface? This will be people’s needs and interests e.g. saving face, integrity, how we are perceived, the need for job security, to be respected and liked amongst our peers. The grievance process will usually fail to unearth these issues as the parties will be worried about such things becoming known to their immediate Line Managers / the senior management team due to fear of reprisal or becoming public knowledge amongst their colleagues.

In my experience, as both a mediator and previously as an employment lawyer of over 11 years, where there are interpersonal issues between members of staff the grievance process often only serves to widen the gap between the parties as opposed to addressing these underlying issues. This is then compounded by the fact that following the conclusion of the grievance process the parties are often expected to still work together and colleagues have been brought into the conflict (perhaps unwillingly) as witnesses in the Grievance Investigation creating even further tension within teams.

In my view, it is in these types of situations, that formal processes have had their day and organisations should be looking to introduce mediation as an option to be taken up by parties as an alternative to raising a grievance.

When will mediation be most effective?

Mediation can be used with great effect at any point in a conflict situation however it can certainly be said that when used at an earlier point (before any formal complaint has been raised) relationships will often suffer less damage.

One of the reasons for this is that the mediation process is entirely confidential and issues and concerns can be discussed in confidence with the mediator without work colleagues / Line Managers being drawn into the conflict.

If mediation is used at an earlier stage in the conflict it is also less likely that the parties will have become entrenched in their positions. However, that is not to say that there is a specific timescale for introducing mediation.

My Business Partner and Managing Director of Mediation at Work, Alison Love, recently shared with me one of the first cases that she undertook as a mediator where the parties had been involved in a conflict situation which had been unresolved for over six years and the mediation was a success.

Mediation can be used in a variety of conflict situations such as:

  • A conflict about different working practices
  • Conflicting perceptions around performance which might lead to allegations of bullying and / or discrimination
  • A conflict about communication styles / styles of management which might lead to allegations of bullying and / or discrimination
  • A conflict about behaviours / relational issues
  • A breakdown in communication

It is probably most commonly and widely used in situations where there are behavioural or interpersonal issues which are likely to (if left unresolved) lead to a grievance being raised.

When will it be appropriate to use a more formal process?

There are still going to be cases where mediation might not be appropriate.

The most likely will be where there are serious disciplinary allegations e.g. gross misconduct, where there is a significant imbalance of power between the parties or potential safeguarding issues. Also, in certain situations where a party disagrees with a management decision and wants to challenge that decision, a formal determination may be required.

The process is also voluntary so the parties must want to engage in the process. However, my experience is that once you have discussed the advantages and disadvantages of using mediation as opposed to taking a more formal route (presuming that a grievance has yet to be raised) parties are generally open to the benefits that mediation can offer them and willing to giving it a try especially given that the formal processes will still be there for them if mediation doesn’t provide them with the outcome that they are seeking.

Other benefits of mediation v formal processes?

Although there will be some cases where mediation will not be appropriate it can be used in most cases and studies have shown than when it is used the success rates are very high.

There are also other significant benefits to the use of mediation rather than more formal processes:

Ø  Cost Savings

Organisations that have introduced in-house mediation schemes / incorporated mediation into their procedures /are using mediation regularly, have found a reduction in the number of grievance / disciplinary cases. This obviously results in significant costs savings to the organisation as it means less senior management time being taken up in dealing with interviewing witnesses and conducting Grievance / Disciplinary hearings and appeals and the associated time taken in speaking with Trade Union officials, solicitors and subsequent Tribunal proceedings that might then ensue.

Ø  Reduction in staff absences

Studies have shown that unresolved conflict is the biggest cause of stress related absence and low productivity due to low staff morale.

Ø  Privacy

Mediation preserves relationships as it allows individuals and teams the opportunity to discuss any issues in a confidential and private setting.

Ø  Empowerment / Control

Mediation also empowers the individuals to come up with a solution to the problems as opposed to these being imposed upon them by a Grievance / Disciplinary Investigating Officer.

Next time there is an interpersonal conflict in the workplace

So, the next time you are made aware of a conflict situation in your workplace, consider speaking with the individuals to the conflict about the possibility of mediation as opposed to raising a grievance / instigating the disciplinary procedure and you may be pleasantly surprised by the benefits that mediation can offer.

We have a team of experienced mediators who can help if you have a conflict situation please get in touch to discuss your requirements.



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The report was very professional, it dealt with all the issues raised and was particularly thorough. It clearly took the time to fully understand all of the issues and background. It was complex but the report really helped to break it down and I’m hoping we can progress in a positive manner following the recommendations.

Group HR Manager, Energy Sector |

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