Research carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that workplace conflict is most likely to be resolved when effective management action is taken at an early stage. CIPD found that the earlier that mediation was used in an employment dispute, the greater the chance of successfully resolving the conflict and re-establishing workable relationships.
Mediation will become an option at the point that when both parties recognise that there is an issue that needs to be resolved. This may come initially from one or both of them, or it may be their manager who raises it with them.
It may be obvious to both parties that there is a problem - for example, where one person has flared up during a meeting, walked out and has since refused to communicate direct with the person they see as the cause. Or an employee may have tried unsuccessfully to resolve an issue with their manager, and may, as a result, have submitted a formal grievance.
On the other hand, one employee may be having considerable difficulty working with another, but the latter may be refusing to accept that there is a problem, or may see any difficulties as entirely the other person's fault.
In any of these circumstances, the relevant manager - or managers if they are managed by different people - or, if appropriate, HR - will need to sit down with them individually and suggest that the involvement of a neutral third party would be helpful.
At this point the employees will have questions about how the process will work, and they are likely to be understandably nervous of committing themselves to a process they have probably never experienced before.
It will be important for the manager or HR to be able to give them a basic picture of the process and who the proposed mediator will be. I can provide this during an initial meeting with the manager and / or HR. Once the decision has been made to use mediation, I will also speak to both employees by telephone to explain in outline how mediation works, hear from them about any concerns and answer any questions they may have. At the end of this phone-call I will also ask them to confirm that they still want to go ahead, and that they are doing this voluntarily.
It is a fundamental precondition for successful mediation that both parties freely agree to participate and commit to seeing the process through.
It is also fundamental that they understand that they will determine the outcome, not the mediator. The latter will use his best efforts to help them to reach a constructive way forward that they both feel they can freely commit to. But it is not his role to tell them what to do. That will be for them to decide.
It may already have been necessary for an organisation to take formal action, for instance
Mediation can be proposed either during or after any of these. For example, the staff conducting an investigation may reach the conclusion that mediation is likely to be more effective than moving to formal disciplinary action.
Or an employer in receipt of a grievance submission may want to refer both parties for mediation rather than use the formal grievance procedure.
Or the outcome of a grievance hearing could be that the staff dealing with it decide that there are valid points of view on both sides and that mediation is more likely to lead to the parties finding a workable way forward than simply announcing their conclusions.
Or an employer who has had to take disciplinary action - short of dismissal - because of the behaviour of one employee towards another, may then want to find a way to repair the working relationship between them. Mediation can be a powerful way of re-building respect on both sides and enabling them to define how they will work more effectively together.
Mediation will not be appropriate in all circumstances. For example:
If you are not sure whether mediation would be appropriate in your circumstances, do contact me for an informal, entirely confidential discussion.