The art of mediation

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Unresolved workplace disputes are one of the biggest barriers to employee engagement. These conflicts and quarrels can drain resources, take up large volumes of time and cost an excessive amount of money. But introducing an effective mediation scheme can help put an end to a ‘grievance culture’, efficiently solve cases and save companies substantial sums of money says David Liddle, CEO of the TCM Group.

Managing the challenges

In many ways mediation has been used as a conflict resolution tool for numerous years without it formally being labelled as such. However, as many employees become more litigious and businesses continue to feel the pinch (both emotionally and financially) as cases continue to be escalated to tribunal unnecessarily; it’s surely about time that a formal process was put in place.

The optimal result for effective mediation is reaching a mutually accepted resolution, whilst mitigating disruption to the business as much as possible. But deciding to embed a mediation process throws up a meaty list of questions, such as:

  • What actually is mediation and how can it be defined?
  • Should we outsource mediation to a third party or develop the skills internally?
  • If we choose to grow an internal mediation function, who needs up-skilling - ER advisors, people managers, shared service centre staff or a dedicated team?
  • How can we manage the impact that a mediation scheme will have on our relationship with trade unions?

Defining mediation

Before jumping too far into the ‘Art of Mediation’, let’s go back to basics and define what mediation actually is. 

David Liddle describes the process of mediation as a non-adversarial, impartial facilitated discussion whereby an open and honest dialogue is conducted in order to reach a mutually accepted resolution. The mediator does not propose solutions or make judgments, but simply uses a unique set of skills to create a degree of understanding between the parties involved.

Establishing an in-house mediation service

Firstly it’s important to note that a business needs to be large enough to warrant an internal mediation service. If you’ve managed either to develop or buy-in these skills, they need to be used regularly to prevent them being weakened and eventually becoming redundant. For businesses that are smaller, there are external mediation services who can assist with mediation, and for larger organisations, external consultancies can offer extensive training to up-skill your existing workforce. 

When embedding an internal mediation model, it’s crucial that involved parties trust the mediator and sense an independence from the employer. The content and outputs from the discussion have to be handled in confidence; the success of the process rests solely on the validity of the discussion. 

In some cases, internal mediators might be considered too close to the problem – is there value in having cross-organisational mediation support between non-competing businesses in the same industry? Willing organisations give up their time to offer mediation services to their peers in exchange for a reciprocated service. Perhaps an idea worth investigating?

In the majority of cases, it’s unlikely that internal mediation is going to be someone’s full-time job. So who should have these skills ‘bolted’ onto their role – individuals within HR or employees from the wider business? In both cases, ‘business as usual’ activities can take over, forcing mediation to the back of the queue. When up-skilling a member of staff, they need to be aware of the importance of their role as a mediator and have a realistic work load initially to allow them to jump on cases as and when required. 

What is good mediation?

Mediation is one of a number of utensils featured within your conflict resolution toolkit. It does work, but isn’t right for every circumstance. Often it is considered an ‘end of the road’ solution, which can dilute a lot of the value – using mediation early on during a conflict can prevent cases being unnecessarily escalated and diminish the need for legal action. Addressing when it’s appropriate is absolutely part of the process. Before introducing mediation into your business, ask yourself:

  • What’s our definition of mediation?
  • What are our ground rules within the process?
  • What situations will we use it in?
  • What training or external service is required to meet the needs? 

Being aware of why you are mediating is also crucial. Are you protecting your external or internal reputation? Are you attempting to reduce costs or are you mitigating risk to your engagement levels? Being clear about this will help you arrive at your desired outcome. However, never underestimate the value of a simple apology – quite often this is the sticking point for aggrieved parties and is enough to settle their conflict.

So, what are the attributes of a good mediator?

  • Active listening
  • Patience
  • Being non-judgmental 
  • Building trust
  • Raising awareness of a problem without pointing the finger
  • Coaching someone to arrive at a mutually accepted conclusion

Starting the process

Mediation can be an effective solution for businesses, provided employees and managers are aware that it is offered as a service/tool. Whilst it’s agreed that staff shouldn’t be able to demand it, making them aware of their options and ‘outlining the deal’ is advisable. If HR, ER or the shared service centre (depending on the process owner) decides it’s the right conflict resolution tool based upon their framework, it could end up preventing an unnecessary grievance or even a case resulting in legal action. 

Employees are often most engaged during on-boarding; perhaps this is a good time to communicate their options in the event of a workplace conflict and who they should contact to solve the issue. It’s unlikely that new joiners will remember the full policies, but just knowing that they’re there is often the catalyst needed to initiate the conversation.

Final thoughts

Whilst it’s acknowledged that mediation isn’t the answer to all conflict resolution, it’s considered to be appropriate for approximately 80% of all cases and has a reported 80% success rate of reaching resolution on all mediated disputes. Often, aggrieved employees are grateful for the opportunity to be taken seriously and given the chance to vent their frustrations in a formal environment before they have the desire to take a more serious course of action. However, when a solution is identified it’s crucial to have the resources in place to follow up on cases in order to prevent the same issue from arising again and the mediation being considered a ‘quick fix’. 
See also ‘Mediation in the Workplace’ – our Checklist on the benefits and processes involved in workplace mediation.


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