David Wallis: The Value of Mediation

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Disagreement and debate in the workplace is inevitable. Discussions and even arguments can spark new creative ideas but unresolved disputes can lead to a breakdown in working relations. Workplace disputes cost UK business an average of over £24bn a year and the cost to UK employers for tribunal claims is estimated to be £7000 per case on average . The considerable rise in unemployment in the last few years has had a stressful impact on our working lives. Employees are under more pressure and often feel they must work longer hours to hold on to their jobs. Colleagues are more inclined to snap at each other in an uncertain and stressful working environment and minor arguments can quickly get out of hand. Disputes can be anything from continuous arguments with a colleague to anxiety caused by low-level criticism, gossip or how your boss is treating you. Companies are increasingly turning to mediation as a solution. Mediation can resolve the situation harmoniously before it reaches the costly and stressful tribunal stage.

Line managers are increasingly given responsibility for issues once seen as firmly held by HR and often expected to resolve disputes internally. Some line managers spend more than a day a week managing associated issues that arise from workplace disputes . But these managers often are not trained in resolving disputes and yet they are expected to successfully deal with them. If they don’t have the right highly specialized skills they may make the problem worse.

This is a time-consuming problem. An average of 13 days of management time is lost per disciplinary and 9 days for every grievance . However, it is not only the managers who are affected by disputes, there is inevitably a loss of team morale. Disputes can also lead to workplace sickness and impact staff turnover, recruitment and retraining costs. Across the organisation therefore, disputes poses a genuine risk and a sizeable business cost.

Workplace mediation is a practical and powerful solution to resolving disagreements. An external consultant who can view a situation objectively can often help to resolve an entrenched disagreement. The entire process is confidential which allows the participants to air their grievances without fear of repercussions. The mediator does not report back to the HR department or managers and participants are under no obligation to reveal what has taken place. Mediation is a voluntary process so an employer cannot force employees to take part or force anyone to accept a solution. This allows all parties to enter into the mediation process freely when they are open to discussion about the issues.

Without mediation, disputes may escalate to formal tribunals, which will take at least 26 weeks to resolve . This is not only costly for the company but it can also result in significant stress for the employees involved. Employees involved in disputes are unlikely to want to take the matter to this level or take drastic action, such as leaving the company. Mediation is a way of dealing with disputes early to try and prevent disagreements turning into more serious problems.

Communication is a key step in resolving conflict. It allows employees to express their anger, which helps relieve the tension. Anger can be a manifestation of problems at work or at home and often people let issues fester rather than dealing with them directly. Frequently anger is misdirected and an employee may take his or her anger with one person out on someone else. If a colleague tells the same joke six times in a couple of days, it could get under your skin but you may snap at another colleague. One of the most important ways of preventing conflicts is to encourage people to express their feelings in a non-judgmental and factual way.

Organisations are starting to recognise the value of impartial and independent advice in solving these disputes. Managers can resolve more minor conflicts but mediation can be a necessary process in solving an entrenched dispute. Successful mediation aims to resolve conflicts and help all parties achieve positive working relationships. Disagreement may be a necessary part of working life but employees shouldn’t find themselves in a negative situation that they cannot resolve. Mediation can be a way out of these costly and stressful disputes. Investing in this upfront may help stop relatively minor workplaces problems becoming far more serious and costly issues.

The Author

By David Wallis, Management Consultant at Right Management Workplace Wellness

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  1. David Wallis raises some interesting and extremely valid points here. One particularly key point is that of early intervention before matters start to escalate since the longer the dispute has been going, the more time has elapsed and therefore a pattern of destructive behaviour has built up. Too often line managers simply bury their heads in the sand hoping the situation will blow over so nipping matters in the bud is key to keeping relationships on an even keel. Additionally mediation can be used following the conclusion of any disciplinary or grievance action as this can help to address the more emotive elements and pave the way towards healing the relationship. An employee who uses racist language, for example, can still lack any understanding of how their behaviour impacts on others, after all if this type of language was used during their childhood how would they know any different? So bringing the offender and victim into a neutral environment to address the issues of cause and effect can help to bring an ideal and successful conclusion.

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