Workplace mediation is a process whereby an independent third party (the mediator) assists two or more parties who are in dispute to try to reach a mutual and manageable agreement as to how they will work better together in the future.
Workplace disputes between co-workers can and do happen with surprising frequency. Seemingly minor problems, if not tackled early on, can grow arms and legs and take on a life of their own. Trivial issues can somehow snowball and lead to formal grievances being lodged. Not only are these particularly time consuming and resource intensive but it can be difficult to return to a productive working relationship between those involved once the formal process has been invoked.
Causes of conflict include: personality differences; poor communication; stress; management style; poor performance; differing values and personal issues.
Regardless of the cause, workplace conflict can result in, at the very minimum, misery and frustration and, in the worst case scenario, action at an employment tribunal. Of course, between these two ends of the spectrum lie of range of other potential outcomes including: staff depression; sickness absence; lowering of morale; decline in productivity; further escalation of conflict and disciplinary action to name but a few.
Mediation can be a solution to workplace conflicts. It involves an independent person from outside the organisation who works to facilitate communication between the disputing parties, and assists them with focussing on the actual issues at the heart of the conflict. The mediator does not impose a solution but facilitates the parties with developing an agreed outcome. Mediation is entirely voluntary and will only work if both parties are willing to participate in the process. Similarly, whilst a skilled mediator can often work to soften hard-line positions, some degree of compromise is often required to find a solution and mediation may not be successful if both parties maintain opposite and intractable positions.
Whilst mediation does involve investing in the outside expertise of a skilled mediator, the potential costs involved in not pursuing this option can far overshadow this investment: there’s the loss of morale and productivity from the team affected, recruitment costs if someone resigns, and legal and reputational costs if the matter escalates and ends up at a tribunal.
Mediation should be considered when it is evident that a serious complaint is on the horizon or it is apparent that a conflict is beginning to escalate and discussions have so far done little to resolve it.
Mediation doesn’t work miracles: two individuals who have been in a serious dispute are unlikely to become buddies. However, when it’s successful, it can get people at least working together effectively as professionals.