by Rita Bailey

Why mediate?

Mediation is increasingly being used to deal with a wide range of disputes over issues ranging from team relationships to termination agreements at board or even director level which may involve significant sums of money, as well as cases of sexual or race discrimination, harassment and bullying.

How do disputes arise?

Key changes in the workplace have increased the potential for conflict, as managers and their teams are under constant pressure to perform well. In addition, managers in the modern workplace have to take into consideration issues such as equality, health and safety, and dignity at work. Staff are attracted to organisations offering favourable working conditions, family-friendly working arrangements and support. However, differing expectations can easily lead to allegations of inequities or even different interpretations of work practice.

Unfortunately, diversity in staff groups also brings with it the risk of conflicts. Misunderstandings can be a natural occurrence when managers draw diverse groups together, hoping to tap into each person’s potential and to get the best out of everyone.

Disputes between team members in a department often start small, arising from a performance issue, a change in working practice, the need to implement a difficult change, staff feeling alienated from those who manage them or from group or individual rivalries. In some organisations, restructuring has lead to delays in dealing with relatively simple issues until they have escalated to the stage of formal grievance and disciplinary procedures.

Whatever the issue, if it remains unresolved for a significant length of time, grievances begin to build up around the initial problem, complicating and aggravating matters.

Other reasons for mediation

Mediation offers a cost-effective method of handling many disputes, empowering managers to respond quickly, early and with confidence. It is therefore no wonder that mediation skills are becoming critical to workplace success.

Mediation is not the best way to handle every type of dispute or conflict that may arise, but where appropriate (see Conflict Resolution – Approaches to resolving a conflict), it offers several advantages over other methods of conflict resolution:

  • Tribunals and other forms of litigation are expensive compared with a mediation process using line managers
  • Formal procedures take time, which impacts negatively on staff working practice and routines; staff work less efficiently and become more likely to make errors
  • When issues are not settled amicably, staff become reluctant to make decisions or take action, as they want to avoid further conflict
  • Delayed responses to disputes create an ‘atmosphere’
  • Disputes that escalate to formal measures become public, and this can spoil reputations and affect service users, customers, shareholders and future recruitment
  • Where mediation is available, this has also been found to reduce the numbers of staff choosing formal routes to resolve grievances with colleagues; instead, staff are able to communicate their concerns, as well as understand why the dispute occurred in the first place, which helps to prevent future conflict
  • Mediation can bring an objective approach to dealing with sensitive issues in the workplace, and help managers to create better work environments
  • Mediation can build confidence in handling disputes and help to establish new ways to deal with future disputes in a healthy way
  • Mediation can help to identify inefficient working practices and confusion in roles and responsibilities
  • It can empower staff to take ownership of the solutions they have agreed to and focus on what they have in common
  • It keeps doors open to other forms of dispute resolution (for example bringing in external mediators) if staff remain unsatisfied.

Their errors have been weighed and found to have been dust in the balance; if their sins were as scarlet, they are now white as snow: they have been washed in the blood of the mediator and the redeemer, Time.

Percy Bysshe Shelley