Workplace mediation: your questions – and challenges! – answered

We often talk to HR colleagues about what mediation has to offer in addressing workplace conflict. Those with limited or distant experience of using it tend to have (sometimes challenging!) questions about how to get the best from it in practice. In this blog, we address some of the most common queries that come our way.

Q. We have internal procedures for grievances and disciplinaries – why would we need to consider using mediation?

When their staff raise a grievance or are considering taking disciplinary action, many employers now offer the opportunity to try mediation first. Compared to traditional procedures which can go on for weeks, mediation is much quicker. That means less stress and distraction for everyone involved and less cost for the employer.

Moreover, mediation is good at restoring relationships – between colleagues and with the employer. Traditional processes, being adversarial in nature, often do further harm to already tense relationships. They encourage people to ‘prove’ their case with more ‘evidence’ of the other person’s wrongdoing. They may also miss the root cause of problems and leave people feeling resentful about the process and/or outcome.

Mediation is much more constructive. It supports people to gain a shared understanding of what has happened and get to the heart of the matter. They can express what they need from each other to improve their working relationship and agree practical steps forward.

Q. Is workplace mediation just for grievances and disciplinaries?

No, it can be used to address all sorts of interpersonal difficulties between two or more colleagues. They may be peers or manager/member of staff. Mediation should not be used as a substitute for good staff management, but it can sort out underlying difficulties.

Relationship or communication breakdown, unwelcome behaviour, ‘personality clashes’, complaints about lack of respect or trust, disagreement on working methods or priorities, perceptions of unfairness, and team dysfunction. These are all subjects we commonly deal with in mediation.

Q. Is mediation suitable for complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination?

Yes, it can be a very good way of addressing these sensitive issues. People’s willingness to try mediation, and to come in good faith, is key in such cases. The first step for mediators should be to talk to participants to check for that. We find it helps to reassure both parties that if they feel mediation is not working, they can call a halt and resort to standard procedures. The mediators themselves will end the process if they have concerns about what is going on.

Mostly though, people find that having direct communication with each other makes the difference. They can ask and answer each other’s questions, talk about intentions, weigh up what they see and hear, and decide how to go forward.

Mediation is therefore a great way to support diversity and inclusion policies. The process aims to build common purpose between people, based on their needs and values. It bridges difference by encouraging understanding, respect and constructive negotiation.

Q. Isn’t it a bit heavy-handed to call in someone external?

Workplace mediation is relatively informal process and shouldn’t feel that way. It involves minimal work for referrers – mediators usually take care of all the arrangements, for example, and little paperwork is needed. Experienced mediators will make participants feel as comfortable as possible about the prospect of mediation. Once the process is underway, people quickly feel the benefit of expert support.

External mediators give everyone a strong assurance of confidentiality. Knowing that they have no power in their organisation also encourages participants to be open and honest, so they get full benefit from the process.  We find this is particularly important in smaller organisations. Where there has already been an attempt to resolve things internally, the employer can signal a fresh approach by using external mediators, drawing a line under what has gone before.

Offering the option of mediation is one way for an employer to demonstrate commitment to staff wellbeing and a constructive workplace culture.

Q. Is mediation suitable/realistic for smaller organisations?

It is true that large employers in all sectors commonly use mediation to address all kinds of staff conflict. However, many smaller organisations are benefiting too.

Research1 has shown that SMEs who have used mediation are typically very positive about it. 99% felt it was a good tool for resolving workplace disputes. With experience of mediation, SME managers were less likely than those who had not used it to feel that it is only for large organisations. They were also less likely to consider it an expensive way to resolve disputes.

Interestingly, other research2 has found that smaller organisations (fewer than 50 staff) who had used mediation were more positive about it than the largest ones. This may be because conflict between staff can have a disproportionate impact in smaller organisations.

Q. What does mediation cost?

Costs vary between providers of external mediation. As an example, our fees start at £950 for a case involving two people progressing through the full process.

Q. Timing: when should we call in the mediators?

You can use mediation at any stage of a dispute, including after formal procedures have been concluded, to rebuild relationships.

However, it is most effective – and cost-effective – when used as early as possible before things become too entrenched. The time to act (quickly!) is when those involved have been unable to sort it out themselves or with help from a manager or colleague.

You may see signs of things escalating: further grievances being added or other people being drawn in, for example. Another common scenario is colleagues avoiding each other, perhaps putting in place ‘workarounds’ or causing others to feel uncomfortable.

Some question the worth of using mediation for issues that may not seem too disruptive or could clear up on their own. However, the evidence shows that the hidden costs to employers of unmanaged conflict is enormous. Lost productivity (due to low morale, distraction, sick leave, presenteeism) and replacing staff who escape the stress by resigning account for the lion’s share of costs. So, encouraging staff experiencing conflict to deal with it quickly and constructively pays off.

Q. How do we persuade people to go for mediation if they feel antipathy for each other? 

This can be tricky if emotions are running high. Experienced mediators should be adept at addressing people’s concerns or fears about mediation. In our practice, we are happy to talk with potential participants about their options for addressing conflict. We also provide evidenced-based guidance for referrers in making the offer of mediation.

Q. How long does mediation take?

Mediation can be set up quickly, depending on the participants’ availability. In most cases the mediation meetings are completed in a day or two half-days. Occasionally the participants need a further meeting if there are several issues to resolve, or if they need more support because of mental health needs for example.

Q. What can go wrong?

The first rule for mediators is ‘do no harm’. In this it helps that mediation is a process.

As mentioned above, careful mediators will have brief introductory contact with the referrer (often the HR professional or line manager) and the participants. In this, they check if the situation is suitable for mediation and that the participants are willing. They continue to keep things under review at each stage. If a concern arises, they will attempt to put things right, but will end it as constructively as possible, if necessary.

Q. What if participants can’t reach agreement?

This is probably the most common question about workplace mediation. Mediations are generally quoted as being ‘successful’ if they end with a written agreement. This is usually the outcome, but we advocate strongly that this written aspect is simply an extension of success in other areas.

Disputes generally arise from a combination of factors, commonly including a breakdown of trust, communication and understanding. Exploring and re-setting these factors during the process is the real, background success. The written agreement will reflect that and record the practical steps to build on it. However, for some people it will be enough that they have had a constructive dialogue.

On occasions, the mediation process does highlight that a damaged working relationship is beyond repair. However, mediators can then enable participants to consider:

– what their next options and preferred outcomes are

– what is important to them about how and when the relationship is ended

– any messaging that they would like to send to others.

Q. If mediation is confidential, how will the manager/referrer know what’s been agreed?

The confidentiality of mediation is important to a successful outcome. It applies to written agreements as well as to what is said during the process. However, mediators should ask participants to consider the benefits of sharing all or part of the agreement with someone who can support them in implementing it. When they do decide to keep it to themselves, we encourage them to agree a message to give the referrer, manager or colleagues a sense of the outcome.

Q. What if people don’t stick to what they agree in mediation?

When people feel that they have been free to forge an agreement that makes sense to them and will improve their situation, they tend to be committed to it. Mediators should get participants to agree what to do if things don’t work out. In our practice, we also follow up with them some weeks later to help keep things on track.

Q. How do I find a suitable mediation provider?

Two key organisations provide some assurance of credentials of qualified workplace mediators: CMC and College of Mediators. Look for evidence of active practice and professional development as well as accredited training.

In our experience mediating in organisations of different sizes and types, it is not necessary to have specific industry knowledge to mediate work-related interpersonal issues. However, you may wish to talk to the mediator/s to get a sense of their suitability for the case in hand or for the nature of your organisation.

If you have any further questions about workplace mediation, in general or for a specific situation, do get in touch

  1. ‘Are you experienced? SME use of and attitudes towards workplace mediation’ Latreille, Buscha & Conte (2012). The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 23:3, 590-606
  2. Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). 2008. Workplace Mediation: How Employers Do It, London: CIPD
two wooden figures on opposite platforms. Block being placed to join the platforms, labelled 'Mediator'