Workplace Mediation & Conflict at Work

workplace mediation

IN THIS ARTICLE

Addressing workplace conflict requires a proactive approach by employers, including clear communication, effective management practices, and, when necessary, interventions such as mediation or conflict resolution training.

Conflict is a natural element of human interaction, and employment relationships are no different. In the UK, organisations are vibrant, diverse and comprise individuals from all walks of life with differing views, values, and expectations regarding work. A certain level of constructive conflict, such as healthy competition among individuals striving to excel in their roles, can be beneficial and even foster innovation within teams.

However, tensions and conflict can escalate, and problems arise when initial disagreements are ignored or poorly managed, allowing the situation to worsen and the conflict to intensify. This can ultimately result in costly legal proceedings if the dispute cannot be resolved between the parties.

Alternative dispute resolution practices such as workplace mediation offer a way to resolve disagreements at work in a less confrontational and costly manner.

While mediation can act as a valuable tool for resolving workplace conflicts, it is however only sometimes applicable. Certain situations may necessitate more formal procedures, and some individuals may not be willing participants in the mediation process.

In this guide for employers, we explain what workplace mediation is, how it works and the circumstances when it may offer a more appropriate solution to resolving a dispute at work.

Common sources of workplace conflict

Employers and managers should be vigilant in identifying and addressing the early signs of conflict to prevent escalation and maintain a positive working environment.

Common factors which frequently contribute to workplace conflicts include:

  • Miscommunication or Lack of Communication: When there’s insufficient communication about tasks, expectations, or organisational changes, misunderstandings can occur, leading to conflict.
  • Workplace Bullying and Harassment: Situations where an employee feels bullied or harassed by colleagues or managers can create significant conflict and distress.
  • Differences in Personalities and Work Styles: Conflicts can arise from differing personalities, work styles, or approaches to problem-solving, primarily if these differences are not acknowledged and managed effectively.
  • Competition for Resources or Opportunities: Limited resources, such as funding, equipment, or opportunities for promotion, can lead to competition and conflict among staff members.
  • Poor Management and Leadership: Ineffective, inconsistent, or unfair management practices can lead to disputes between employees and management, as well as among colleagues.
  • Work-Life Balance Issues: Conflicts can arise from policies or practices that fail to consider employees’ needs to balance their work and personal lives.
  • Discrimination and Equality Issues: Discrimination based on gender, race, age, disability, or sexual orientation can lead to conflicts, especially if the organisation lacks clear policies and procedures to address these issues.
  • Changes in the Workplace: Organisational changes such as restructuring, mergers, or changes in job roles can be a source of conflict if not managed sensitively and inclusively.
  • Performance Issues: Conflicts may occur over perceptions of unfair performance evaluations, favouritism, or discrepancies in workload distribution.
  • Cultural Misunderstandings: As workplaces become more diverse, misunderstandings or lack of respect for cultural differences can lead to conflict.

What happens if conflicts at work are not addressed?

Line managers and supervisors often juggle multiple responsibilities. Understandably, many might hesitate to engage in challenging discussions with staff, especially if they need more skills or training to deal with complex, personalised issues. But if conflicts are not dealt with promptly and directly, resolving differences becomes significantly more challenging for managers.

Unresolved workplace conflict can severely damage the employer-employee relationship, leading to a challenging and uneasy environment for employers. Neglecting workplace conflicts can severely affect employers, which can result in:

  • The potential for time-consuming legal actions, including grievances and employment tribunal claims.
  • Increased sick leave costs as affected individuals take time off to cope with the conflict’s impact.
  • Diversion of management’s attention from business operations to conflict resolution.
  • Increased staff turnover and the associated costs of recruiting and training new employees.
  • Reduced staff morale leads to diminished willingness to go above and beyond, which affects productivity.
  • Deterioration of team dynamics and working relationships.
  • A shift away from organisational objectives and goals as employees become preoccupied with the conflict.
  • The risk of fostering a blame culture instead of one that promotes innovation.
  • Damage to the employer’s reputation externally.

Furthermore, unresolved conflicts may escalate to formal grievances, initiating processes that are both lengthy and demanding in terms of resources. Once formal proceedings start, restoring a productive working relationship becomes challenging, potentially leading to legal actions like employment tribunal claims. Such outcomes can incur significant legal and reputational expenses for employers.

What is mediation in the workplace?

Mediation is a process for resolving conflicts in the workplace. It is facilitated by a neutral party, known as a mediator, who assists conflicting parties in reaching a mutually agreeable solution and helps all parties reach a mutually acceptable resolution.

The resolution is created by the parties to the dispute and not imposed by the mediator. The mediator’s role is not to pass judgment, declare one party correct or the other incorrect, or prescribe actions to those involved in the mediation. Instead, the mediator manages the process of attempting to solve the conflict without dictating the result.

Mediators can be organisation employees trained and accredited by an external mediation service and serve as internal mediators alongside their regular duties, or they can be sourced from external mediation providers. They may operate alone or in pairs as co-mediators.

Mediation sets itself apart from other conflict resolution methods through several vital characteristics, such as grievance procedures and the employment tribunal process. Mediation is:

  • Informal
  • Flexible
  • Optional
  • Ethically binding, though typically not legally enforceable
  • Confidential
  • Usually conducted without advisors or representatives present
  • Controlled by the involved parties.

Mediation aims to offer a quick and informal resolution to conflicts in the workplace, accessible at any stage of the conflict cycle. It provides a secure and private environment for participants to discover their solutions through various means, such as:

  • Delving into all parties’ issues, emotions, and concerns and mending relationships through collective problem-solving.
  • Enabling individuals to understand and sympathise with the feelings of their counterparts in the conflict.
  • Offering insights into one’s actions and those of others fosters opportunities for positive change.
  • Assisting participants in acquiring the skills necessary to resolve future workplace issues independently.
  • Facilitating communication and guiding the involved parties towards a mutually satisfactory and beneficial resolution.
  • Transforming the energy from conflict into a constructive force to advance the situation.

For workplace mediation to succeed, all parties must be willing to improve the current circumstances, seek resolutions, and repair the relationship. Mediation is unlikely to be successful if any party intends to perpetuate the conflict or achieve a “victory.”

Moreover, confidentiality is a cornerstone of the mediation process. Ensuring that what is discussed will remain private from managers, colleagues, and the broader organisation encourages employees to engage openly and constructively. The decision to share the mediation results with managers and peers is left to the parties’ discretion.

 

Why use mediation in the workplace

Mediation offers employers a viable method for resolving conflicts and repairing workplace relationships so as to minimise the possibility of employment tribunal claims and foster a more informal conflict management approach.

Mediation can:

  • Enhance interpersonal relationships.
  • Alleviate the stress associated with formal procedures.
  • Reduce expenses related to defending against employment tribunals.
  • Improve employee retention rates.
  • Decrease the frequency of formal grievances.
  • Cultivate an organisational culture centred on personnel management and growth.
  • Lower rates of absenteeism.
  • Uphold confidentiality standards.

Most importantly, mediation often proves to be a cost-effective means of resolving workplace disputes, particularly when contrasted with the expenses associated with protracted grievance procedures or tribunal claims.

Implementing mediation at the onset of any disagreement is highly beneficial, preventing the escalation of conflicts within the workplace. Prompt intervention helps avoid the entrenchment of both parties and stops disagreements from evolving into significant disputes. Early resolution minimises the risk of irreparable damage to working relationships, enhancing the prospects for sustaining positive and productive employment relations over time.

Furthermore, employment tribunals often fail to tackle the systemic workplace issues underlying individual disputes. Mediation, on the other hand, has more potential to uncover and address the root causes of problems, leading to improved working practices that benefit both employees and the organisation in the long run. Specifically, mediation can play a critical role in managing stress, helping prevent long-term absences.

 

When is workplace mediation appropriate?

It’s always advisable to attempt to resolve the issue informally before considering mediation. Should the problem remain unresolved informally, mediation becomes a viable option. Mediation applies at any point during a conflict, but early initiation is optimal. Promptly addressing the disagreement reduces the likelihood of the situation deteriorating.

Mediation is suitable for resolving disputes among coworkers of similar positions or between supervisors and their employees. In exceptional cases, it can also be applied to conflicts involving entire teams or between trade unions or groups of employees and management.

Mediation can be initiated at any conflict stage, provided any current formal processes are paused or if mediation is integrated as a part of those formal procedures. It’s applicable before the formal recognition of a grievance and can be utilised post-resolution of a formal dispute to mend relationships.

Mediation can address various issues, such as breakdowns in relationships, personality conflicts, communication barriers, and instances of bullying and harassment. Mediation can also serve to mend relationships following a disciplinary or grievance procedure.

Indeed, there are circumstances where mediation may not be appropriate under certain conditions:

  • If it’s considered immediately – individuals should first attempt direct discussions or approach their manager before resorting to mediation.
  • When a manager uses it as a means to sidestep their leadership duties.
    In situations requiring a determination of right or wrong, such as potential criminal behaviour.
  • If the person alleging discrimination or harassment prefers a formal investigation.
  • When someone’s learning disabilities may hinder their capacity for a fully informed decision.
  • If a party is particularly vulnerable.
  • When the disputing parties lack the authority to resolve the issue.
  • If one party is unyielding, making mediation is unlikely to lead to a hopeful resolution.

When an individual has a significant grievance, informing them about the organisation’s grievance process is crucial. Additionally, in cases involving severe incidents like claims of discrimination or harassment, managers should tackle these issues more formally through a disciplinary investigation and hearing.

Mediation can be particularly valuable in addressing specific issues, particularly relationship breakdown. Workplace tensions can escalate, stemming from disputes over personal belongings, boundaries, language usage, or inadequate managerial skills.

Additionally, bullying, perceived harassment, and discrimination issues are conducive to mediation, though severity and clarity dictate the necessity for formal procedures in some cases.

When managers are ill-equipped to handle disputes impartially or lack adequate conflict resolution skills, mediation offers an alternative avenue.

Some organisations incorporate mediation within formal discipline and grievance protocols, clarifying its role and potentially suspending disciplinary proceedings if deemed appropriate.

Grievances, mainly, are conducive to mediation, offering a means to address underlying relational issues. While managers may hesitate to relinquish authority in disciplinary matters involving misconduct or performance, mediation can blur the lines between disciplinary and grievance issues, prompting a preference for relational resolution. Although often viewed as an early intervention, mediation can also facilitate relationship-rebuilding post-disciplinary or grievance procedures, highlighting its versatility in conflict resolution.

Stages of workplace mediation

The mediation process unfolds in several stages, often outlined as a four-step framework.

Stage 1: Initial Consultation

Initially, once the involved parties consent to mediation, they will each have a separate meeting with the mediator. During this initial consultation, each individual will have the opportunity to outline the conflict or issues, discuss how these have affected them, and clarify their primary objectives – essentially, what they aim to achieve through the mediation process.

Situations may arise where it becomes necessary to hold initial talks again, primarily if an impasse occurs or if a party hesitates to share information that could help resolve the deadlock.

Stage 2: Joint Meeting

Following this, the mediator arranges a joint session where each party can share their perspective and express their grievances and frustrations without interruption from the other. Listening to the concerns – the mediator typically convenes the participants, allowing each to share their perspective without disruption during a designated period. At this point, the mediator starts to identify and summarise the key points of consensus and contention and collaboratively establishes an agenda with the parties for the subsequent phases of the mediation.

Stage 3: Exploring Solutions

After identifying the primary issues and objectives, the mediator shifts the focus towards the future, steering the discussion towards finding practical solutions, fostering dialogue between the parties, enhancing mutual understanding and empathy, and altering perceptions. This phase often aims to redirect attention from past grievances to future possibilities, initiating the search for productive resolutions.

The outcomes of mediation, determined collaboratively by all parties, are adaptable. Possible resolutions may involve:

  • Recognising the perspectives of each party
  • Pledging to modify behaviours
  • Agreeing to revisit the agreed terms periodically
  • Deciding to reassess workplace policies and procedures
  • Committing to a more equitable distribution of work and increased responsibilities

Stage 4: Finalising the Agreement

Once a consensus is reached, the mediator drafts a written agreement, which includes how the parties will interact moving forward, methods for addressing future concerns, and any identified needs for training or coaching.

There are instances where an agreement might not be achieved, leading to the possibility of resorting to alternative methods for conflict resolution later on. Nonetheless, it’s important to note that any discussions held during the mediation are confidential and cannot be utilised in any future legal proceedings.

Shuttle mediation, where the mediator conveys messages between parties who are either unable or unwilling to meet face-to-face, may be employed as a strategy. This approach is used either when direct communication is not possible or when it is deemed more effective. The ultimate goal, however, is to facilitate a direct dialogue between the parties.

Confidentiality is a critical aspect of the mediation process. All discussions during mediation are kept confidential among the parties involved, and information shared, which would not be otherwise known, cannot be disclosed outside the mediation without mutual consent. This allows parties to decide if and what they wish to share about the mediation process with colleagues or managers, provided all parties agree. Exceptions to this rule are made only under specific circumstances, such as in cases of unlawful activities or significant health and safety risks.

The details of the mediation process are protected from being used in future legal actions without the consent of all involved parties. While there is a theoretical possibility for mediators to be summoned to testify in court, legal systems typically uphold the confidentiality of mediation. This practice encourages mediation by ensuring that the process remains a private and secure means of conflict resolution, understanding that individuals might be less inclined to engage in mediation without such confidentiality.

Practical considerations when using mediation at work

Mediation is not a quick fix; its benefits require careful evaluation, staff education, and ongoing organisational promotion, necessitating adequate resource allocation.

The voluntary nature of mediation contributes significantly to its success, as parties engage with a shared goal of resolving differences. Mandating mediation or incorporating it into grievance procedures could exacerbate tensions.

Early intervention is vital to successful mediation, as prolonged conflicts tend to deepen entrenched positions, making resolution more challenging. Mediation can be introduced at any stage of a conflict, even after formal procedures or tribunal claims, to facilitate relationship repair and foster teamwork.

Organisations must consider various factors for effective implementation, including the choice between internal and external mediators. Awareness and acceptance of mediation among the workforce, managers, and representatives are crucial. Trade unions can enhance the credibility of the mediation process and foster trust.

 

Legal disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

 

Author

Workplace Mediation & Conflict at Work 1

Gill Laing is a qualified Legal Researcher & Analyst with niche specialisms in Law, Tax, Human Resources, Immigration & Employment Law.

Gill is a Multiple Business Owner and the Managing Director of Prof Services - a Marketing Agency for the Professional Services Sector.

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