What is Workplace Mediation?
Mediation is a tool to resolve workplace conflict or disputes. It’s often described as a form of alternative or informal dispute resolution as it’s less formal than grievance and discipline procedures and employment tribunals. Although it is considered an ‘informal’ process, it does still have a structured approach.
The aim of mediation is to allow all parties to speak confidently in a safe and secure environment and to encourage a mutual understanding in how to improve working relationships. It focuses on trying to address underlying causes of conflict and has a win/win emphasis, supporting both sides of a dispute to find solutions that are acceptable to each side.
It therefore encourages more positive outcomes in the workplace that more traditional adversarial formal processes.
Key aspects that make workplace mediation so effective are it’s timeliness, as it can take place very quickly, and its flexibility as it can be used at any stage of a disagreement or dispute. A trained mediator’s role is to act as an impartial third party who facilitates a meeting between two or more people in dispute to help them reach an agreement. Although the mediator is in charge of the process, any agreement comes from those in dispute.
Agreements made through a workplace mediation process are not legally binding, but are made with a moral voluntary commitment.
Specifically, mediation provides the potential to:
- Help parties involved in conflict to hold open conversations that would normally be too difficult to have
- Help parties to understand and empathise with each other’s emotions and situations.
- Explore all parties’ issues and concerns and use joint problem-solving to find a solution that each side feels is fair.
- Encourage communication and establish workable relationships.
- Help participants develop the skills to resolve workplace difficulties for themselves in future.
Different types of workplace disputes can be resolved with mediation, including conflict arising from poor communication, unclear role boundaries, different working styles, issues relating to harassment or bullying.
Most disputes can be resolved provided that all parties are prepared to work on the issues, and they have the authority to settle the situation.
Confidentiality is a key element of workplace mediation. Like most types of mediation what happens in the mediation process remains confidential unless the parties agree it can be shared. But colleagues do not work in a vacuum, and it is important that mediation outcomes are practical in the workplace. While nothing is written on the employee record, it may be appropriate for HR and/or line/senior management to be aware.
Workplace mediation has significant benefits for individuals, but also their teams, line management and the wider organization.
Research from the CIPD shows that individuals will wrestle with a dispute or difficult relationship at work for at least six months before taking any action (such as speaking to HR). Experiences of conflict can lead to low morale, sickness, stress, absenteeism, decline in productivity. Management time spent on disputes can escalate quickly and it can easily start to affect wider team members. It can lead to turnover, and ultimately reputational damage.
How does workplace mediation work?
Different organisations have different structures for offering mediation. Some may have internally trained volunteer mediators, others may outsource to a professional mediation company. While there are different models of workplace mediation there are some basic common stages:
Stage 1 – the mediator(s) meet with each party separately. This is a chance for the mediator to listen to each perspective, understand their experience of the dispute, what they want to get from the process and to answer any questions the person might have. At this stage the mediator(s) will usually get agreement from the parties to proceed to the joint meeting
Stage 2 – the joint meeting. This is when the parties come together and have a facilitated dialogue. Usually, in most models of mediation, there is some uninterrupted time at the start of the session, when each person takes it in turn to speak/listen. The mediator(s) then use facilitation and conversation management skills to help the parties identify the key issues and then talk through them to a mutually acceptable solution.
Parties will often start talking about ‘the past’, things that have happened (grievances or experiences), but through the skills of the mediator, they will start to think about what they want now and in the future.
There is usually a shift to future focused thinking which lead to identifying outcomes and mutually beneficial agreements. The agreements made at the end are sometimes written down but they may also be verbally agreed.
Stage 3 – follow up. Many models of mediation will have a follow up stage, this may be a few weeks later and is a chance to check in on how any agreements are working.
The time taken for mediation can vary; some organisations may try to resolve things in one day, with individual meetings in the morning and joint meetings in the afternoon. Often it can be helpful for the parties to have some processing time between meetings, to think about what has been said and to reflect on the questions the mediator asks, so some organisaitons may allow longer.
Mediations can take place on or off the organisation’s site but should always be somewhere neutral and suitably confidential so all parties feel safe.
What can I expect from the mediator?
While mediation is an informal process, it can still be quite intense for everyone involved.
Your mediator(s) should:
- Make it clear that you are participating on a voluntary basis
- Help you to understand the process of mediation,
- Be clear about the requirement for confidentiality, including the duty to break confidentiality under certain circumstances (duty of care, harm etc)
- Remain neutral – they should not seek to move you to one particular outcome, unless that has been agreed as an option from the outset
- Remain impartial between parties
- Be clear about their independence and any conflicts of interest
- Understand how to keep appropriate boundaried confidentiality
- Check for additional needs, adjustments or specific arrangements to allow all people to participate
- Conduct sessions in a way that is inclusive and non-discriminatory
- Use language that is clear and accessible
- Be skilled at managing and facilitating where there are different power dynamics
- Specifically address issues of power, oppression and discrimination in order to encourage differences to be understood respected and managed effectively
- Be clear with parties as to how they wish their agreement to be recorded and communicate to others who may need to know.
- Accept constructive feedback
What will the mediator expect from me?
Part of the mediators role is to help you identify your underlying needs that are impacting on the issues you are concerned about, what it is in the current situation that you are not getting and what, ideally you would like from the workplace, your colleagues.
Rather than identifying our needs, we often focus on our positions when we are in conflict. A position is something someone decides would create a solution to their concerns. They are understandable, but they are not always in our best interests.
Positions can be limiting and only help parties remain stuck, whereas recognising and working on your needs will enable you to move on.
To make sure you move away from positions, the mediator will expect you to:
- Remember what is important to you in the long term – what is at stake if this dispute keeps escalating?
- Ask yourself, ‘do I want this to work?’ – to use this as a positive opportunity to think about and plan for the future
- Try to resolve the past, or move past it to think about the future
- Hear people out – be prepared to listen to another person’s point of view.
- Be creative – to work with the mediator and other parties to think about different ways and ideas to meet your needs, and ultimately get what you want
- Be honest about how you are feeling
- Talk! Talking is not the same as agreeing – you do not have to agree with everything that is being discussed. Sometimes people do not talk in a mediation because they feel it is going to be held as evidence against them, or they just want the mediation to be over. By not engaging with the mediation you lose the opportunity to get the things that you need, or say things that others may need to hear
- Leave evidence gathering at the door. Mediation is not the space to either bring evidence or gather evidence – it is not about proving one person right above another. It is a chance to explore the things that are important to you and to understand what is important to your work colleagues and finding a mutually beneficial solution.
Workplace Mediation – An example
Sarah (a manager) contacted her company’s Hr department to see if two of her team, James and Clare, might be helped by mediation. She explained that James and Clare have worked together for 18 months during which time a number of ‘petty niggles’ have built up to the point where they are now no longer able to communicate.
Sarah has spoken to each of them separately, and sees that they need to be brought together to talk directly about what’s going on with each other. However, she feels that as their manager she would neither be, nor be seen as, sufficiently impartial to take this facilitation role herself, so she suggested mediation, and, albeit reluctantly, both have agreed to explore this further.
HR agreed that mediation might work. This was largely because:
- No formal complaint had been made
- James and Clare had to work together – relocation was not possible.
- The issues were between James and Clare directly themselves; they owned the issues, and were therefore the right people to work on resolving them.
HR had a brief phone call with both James and Clare, during which he / she introduced herself / himself and arranged for their initial meeting with the mediator. The mediator was allocated on the basis that he / she knew neither person and had good availability to meet them quickly.
Clare met with the mediator, first. She talked through what she felt about James’s, and raised a number of issues about his behaviour which she found disrespectful and unacceptable. The mediator then met with James the same day. The mediator asked for James’s point of view about how things stood between them. Although James was initially reluctant to speak without knowing what Clare had said, the mediator was able to encourage him to give his point of view, using skills from the mediation training he had had.
The initial session allowed both James and CLare to:
- Identify more clearly what they wanted from mediation and how to engage constructively in the mediation joint meeting.
- Have the opportunity to get across the information they needed to and to ‘let of steam’ with someone who wasn’t judging them or what they said.
- Have clear expectations about the mediation process and what was going to happen next, including the boundaries and ground-rules in place
- Start to trust the mediator
- Identify their key issues, and what they wanted in terms of solutions and change.
The mediator then set up a joint meeting for the following day. This lasted 5 hours. It was tough, but in the end James and Clare were able to reach some agreements.
The joint session allowed James and Clare to:
- Identify misunderstandings and assumptions they had about each other’s intentions and behaviours
- Arrive at a new and more positive understanding of what happened and why.
- Reflect on what they had brought to the conflict so that they take responsibility for themselves, and improve their ability to work with others.
- Come up with ideas and options that would make working together easier.
James and Clare opted for a written agreement, which was drawn up with the mediator and a copy given to each of them. They were asked to complete a feedback form about their perspective of the usefulness of the mediation, as part of the Mediation Service’s quality evaluation process. James and Clare agreed that their agreement could be shared with their line manager, Sarah , not in order for Sarah to monitor it but in order for her to understand that things were better between them.