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Workplace Mediation

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. 

Mediation can be an extremely quick and effective way to head all the negative aspects of conflict, off at the pass.

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. Some may have two mediators (co-mediation) some just one (solo mediation). 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 be delivered online, on the phone or in person. They may even involve a mixture of different methods, for example individual party meetings might be online, with joint meetings face to face. They 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. 

You should expect your mediator to make your meetings as easy and comfortable as possible given the situation. They should be trained to a minimum standard qualification of 40 hours, and meet all the standards required in the CMC Individual Membership Rules for regulation and be listed as a CMC regulated mediator.

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 Success Story

Emily contacted ANORG’s mediation service coordinator to see if two of her team, Sarah and Arjit, might be helped by mediation. She explained that Sarah and Arjit have worked together for 12 months during which time a number of ‘petty niggles’ have built up to the point where they are now no longer able to communicate. 

Emily 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. 

The Mediation Co-ordinator agreed that mediation might work. This was largely because:

  • No formal complaint had been made
  • Sarah and Arjit had to work together – relocation was not possible.
  • The issues were between Sarah and Arjit directly themselves; they owned the issues, and were therefore the right people to work on resolving them. 

The Co-ordinator had a brief phone call with both Sarah and Arjit, during which she introduced herself and arranged for their initial meeting with the mediator.  The mediator was allocated on the basis that he knew neither person and had good availability to meet them quickly.

Sarah met with Barry, the mediator, first.  She talked through what she felt about Arjit, and raised a number of issues about his behaviour which she found disrespectful and unacceptable. The mediator then met with Arjit the same day. He did not tell Arjit anything that Sarah had said, but asked for Arjit’s point of view about how things stood between them. Although Arjit was initially reluctant to speak without knowing what Sarah had said, Barry 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 Sarah and Arjit 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 Arjit and Sarah were able to reach some agreements. 

The joint session allowed Sarah and Arjit 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.

The outcome

Sarah and Arjit opted for a written agreement, which was drawn up by 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. Sarah and Arjit agreed that their agreement could be shared with Emily, not in order for Emily to monitor it but in order for her to understand that things were better between them.

Workplace Mediation FAQs

Can I bring a representative?

Different organisations will have different rules about bringing a rep or support person with you, so make sure that you are aware of any specific rules your organisation may have. In general, most mediation services will allow you to bring an additional person to your individual meeting but not to the joint session. This is because, even if they don’t say anything at that meeting, their presence will change the dynamic in the room and make it less likely for parties to feel that they can open up and be honest. If you feel that this will be an issue for you, discuss this with your mediator at your individual meeting.

What if we don’t reach an agreement?

While workplace mediation has an incredibly good success rate (upwards of 90%), it may be possible that parties are not able to reach an agreement. If this does happen, your mediators will work with you to discuss next steps and what you may need to do to move the situation forward. This may require additional discussions outside of the mediation, for example with HR or senior management.

Will there be anything on my employee record?

Mediation is a totally confidential process and nothing should be recorded on your employee recorded about the fact that you have used mediation. 

What if I have already made a formal complaint?

Any formal process must be put on hold while mediation is taking place. Different organisations may have different rules about when mediation can be tried, but it is possible to pause a formal process to try mediation. Of course it is best to mediate before getting into a formal process – but it can be done during and after a formal process. However at each stage the formal process must be put on hold. 

There are good reasons for this – you may get different outcomes from a mediation than a formal process, and one may undermine or undo the other. A formal process also works very differently from a mediation, in that a formal procedure will look at evidence, cite witnesses, adopt a win-lose approach, focusing on a problem in order to substantiate a case. Mediation does the opposite – it looks to encourage a win-win approach, it doesn’t look at paperwork or witnesses, We ask people to be prepared to connect as people, not to enter mediation with the intention of dividing themselves with evidence and positions.

What if I am feeling anxious or concerned during the mediation?

Mediation can be an intense experience; many people describe it as worthwhile but challenging, so it very normal to feel anxious or nervous before or during the mediation. Do discuss your concerns with your mediator. If during the mediation you feel like you need a break, just let the mediator know. They will be able to manage the process to allow you some space to recover or manage any anxiety. If things are really too difficult to continue in the same room, the mediator may be able to move to shuttle mediation, where the parties will be in separate rooms and the mediator moves between them. 

Do we have to meet in person?

With the current COVID restrictions workplace mediations have been taking place online. As workplaces get back to meeting in person, more and more mediations are getting back to being in-person. Online and face to face both have positive and negative aspects. As things develop with COVID restrictions, different organisations will have different expectations and regulations for their employees. Check out with the mediator the expectation about meeting in person. If you are feeling unsure about meeting explore that with the mediator.

What do I do if my mediation agreement isn’t working?

Most workplace mediation services will provide some form of support following a mediation, so if you feel like your agreement is no longer working, do contact the mediator or mediation service coordinator in the first instance. Here are some tips to help you stay on track:

  • Try and hold the reality that each party is being ‘reasonable and rational.
  • Stick to what, not why, to avoid making assumptions about other’s behaviour.
  • Show you understand what is important to the other parties, try and acknowledge each other’s feelings and views (without blame or judgement!).  
  • Remember that no party wants to hurt/attack/destroy the other so try and identify the good intention behind what each other has said. 

How do I request mediation at my work?

Different organisations will have different mechanisms for requesting mediation, but commonly it starts with a request to your senior manager or if that is not appropriate, to HR. Check your intranet or other communication to see if there is a designated email or number to call. Remember that many organisations have informal resolution as part of their Bullying and Harassment or Grievance policies – so this may also be a place to start if you are looking for information on how to access mediation. 

Is mediation really voluntary?

Being able to get along with your work colleagues, finding ways around challenging situations is important for a productive workplace and for creating spaces where people feel comfortable and engaged at work. While mediation is a voluntary process, it is important that employees recognise the value in engaging in adult-to-adult dialogue, and organisations should strongly encourage their employees to at least try mediation in the first instance. Managers asking employees to take responsibility for disputes, with the support of a trained mediator, is a reasonable request. It will benefit all parties if people in a dispute can enter into the process with some ability to reflect and engage in the mediation.

Is there any other links/references I can access about workplace mediation?

Yes- the CIPD and ACAS both have useful resources on workplace mediation: 

Find a Mediator

Welcome to the Civil Mediation Council’s search facility where you can find professional mediators. All mediators listed here have completed recognised training courses, abide by a recognised Code of Practice, are appropriately insured, undertake annual continuous professional development and offer access to a complaints service if necessary, and so will provide you with an assured dispute resolution service.