What is Mediation and How Do I Use it in the Workplace?

Mediation is a formal process to help resolve workplace disputes.  It has to be voluntary – it won’t work if one party or the other has been forced into it.  You must also ensure it is confidential.   Mediation involves an independent third party working with the conflicting parties.  The aim is  to try and find an amicable result which works for everyone.  It can be done internally, using a third party mediator who is not involved in the issue.  You need to ensure the mediator is seen as independent by all parties.  Alternatively, you can use an external mediator, who will definitely be independent.

The Benefits of Mediation

If you have conflict in the workplace it can be extremely disruptive, and not just for the parties involved.  It is crucial for you to manage this conflict before it destroys the smooth running of the organisation.  If you fail to manage it, then it will ultimately have a negative effect on your business.

The conflict could escalate to such an extent that  external organisations become involved (such as ACAS or Employment Tribunals in the UK).   Those organisations actively encourage parties to use mediation as a resolution.

As well as helping to resolve workplace conflicts, successful mediation can improve communication and restore trust.  It enables the parties to feel that their position has been heard and considered.  It enables people to move on from the conflict.

When should we be using mediation in the workplace?

Mediation can be used successfully to resolve issues where two people cannot work together.  I have used it successfully where two people had reached the point where they did not speak to each other, but where they needed to collaborate on a project.  Every time they needed to discuss anything, they just argued, with neither party listening to the other.   They were never going to be friends, but the mediation enabled them to work together in a professional manner.  It achieved a successful outcome for the project.

You can use mediation if your employee has raised a formal grievance.  Or it is sometimes useful if there has been a fairly minor act of misconduct.  Mediation can provide a safe environment to raise these issues.  They can be discussed and resolved without the need for formal action.

You could also use mediation as a formal way of following up any formal proceedings.  It can be a particularly helpful way to improve working relationships so that all parties can move forward.

What happens in mediation?

There is no set way for mediation to take place.  The mediator can discuss the alternative approaches with the individuals and agree what they want to do.  Sometimes, the mediator will discuss the issues separately with each party and then feedback to the other party until they can reach some agreement.  Alternatively, all parties can sit round a table and discuss the issues in an open forum.  The mediator can suggest solutions, or the individual parties can suggest solutions.  External mediators can often suggest practical solutions to complex problems.  The aim is for the parties to come up with outcomes which are appropriate and which work for all.

Mediation is a flexible solution and can often be more successful than having to abide by a decision or instruction from a third party.

The discussions are completely confidential and are not binding.  If an agreed outcome is reached, then that becomes binding.

Are there any disadvantages?

Mediation may not be the right solution for more complex problems, or where there has been a serious breach of conduct.

Mediation does not guarantee a successful resolution, which may make it hard to justify the cost.  If you use an internal mediator, then it is likely to take up  a good deal of their time, at least in the short-term.  This also moves their focus from the role they are employed to do.   Even if you use an external mediator, then it may still not be possible for the parties to reach a workable solution.

Mediation only works when both parties agree to take part in it.  Some people are not prepared to try to achieve an agreed outcome.  They are so entrenched in their view, that they want their “day in court” to prove the rights of their case.

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Ditching the Garbage – Taking Decisive Action

Taking decisive action in the workplace can be difficult for an employer.   It is tempting to bury our heads in the sand and hope that the problem will resolve itself.

Roseanne Barr, the American comedian, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons this week.  In case this story has passed you by, Roseanne starred in a popular comedy in USA in the 1990s and a new series has recently been aired by the broadcasting network, ABC.

The new series has only been running a few weeks, but Roseanne has posted her strong views on social media.  In particular, sh has made some racist and disturbing comments on Twitter.  Her fellow actors on the series were quick to distance themselves from her views and ABC immediately pulled the series off air, to wide approval.

I don’t want to discuss racism or misplaced comedy in the workplace, at least not in this article.  I do want to highlight the lessons we can learn from ABC’s decisive action.

Taking Decisive Action

Roseanne is a big star in USA and her series makes serious money for ABC.  It would have been easy for them to publicly reprimand Roseanne and allow the series to continue.  Their swift action to close down the series will have cost them – at least in the short term – and will potentially have put Roseanne’s colleagues out of a job.

It would also have been easy for ABC to wait for a few days, to see if the furore died down .  Roseanne has apologised and claimed her comments were a joke which misfired.  There are many in USA who may well agree with Roseanne, or at least will not be unduly upset by her comments. Others think that ABC’s action is a bar to free speech.

But I believe the swift and decisive action to take the series off air was a sensible and appropriate response by ABC.  It will not be popular in all quarters, but is likely to have pleased far more people than it upset. The decision shows strength and an encouraging lack of influence by financial considerations.

I am sure the general approval of ABC’s actions will win them friends across the world.  I am also sure that the actors who have been affected are likely to get offers of other work fairly quickly, either by ABC or other networks.

What can smaller employers learn from this?

 Too often, disruptive people “get away” with bad behaviour because of their usefulness to their employer.

I once had to deal with a complaint that a sales manager was bullying a female staff member.  The company were reluctant to take disciplinary action as he was “our best salesman”. There was a fear that he would leave if he was subject to disciplinary action.  And he would be difficult to replace. The manager, of course, revelled in his seeming invincibility and his behaviour became gradually worse.

The female staff member left eventually, as did other colleagues with similar complaints.   I imagine the cost of replacing those staff was large.  The company  also had to continually deal with complaints about the manager.  They potentially lost revenue as he was unpopular with clients as well as staff.

In the end, the difficult individual left of his own accord, to suit his own timing, showing no loyalty to the company. If they had taken some disciplinary action at an earlier stage, they would have had more control over the situation.

I am not intending any criticism of the employer. They were placed in a very difficult situation and made the best decision they could, for important business reasons.  The point I am making is that sometimes the difficult path of decisive action is the better path.

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