Workplace mediation; myth or magic?
12 September 2013
Dispute resolution in the workplace can be a daunting prospect for employers, particularly when interpersonal conflict or personality clashes come into play.
Mediation services are offered by some HR consulting firms and mediation for disputes under awards and agreements can also be provided by the Fair Work Commission. However, many fail to see how talking through matters can solve problems and this raises the question; does mediation work?
A recent article in the Age highlighted the case of a Melbourne removalist whose boss facilitated mediation which he feels saved him from being caught up in a workplace brawl. The removalist praised the process saying; "Once we had both told our sides of the story and I apologised for the honest misunderstanding, it was all cleared up and we never had another problem."
That said, not every issue in the workplace will be appropriate for mediation and it is important for employers to consider the factors involved and ask some basic question when deciding whether to conduct mediation:
- Are the parties willing to take part in mediation?
- Is the matter too serious for an informal approach; such as serious misconduct?
- Can the matter realistically be resolved through mediation?
- Is there someone available with the appropriate skills and time to facilitate mediation?
It may sometimes be the case that one of the parties is less willing to get involved, but mediation may still be possible as the manager (or whoever is handling the dispute) can help to "sell" the reluctant party the idea of mediation and why it benefits them. However, if a party does not agree to the process, mediation will not be effective.
For serious matters a formal workplace investigation may be required. For employers determining the seriousness of the matter and the appropriate approach to take, HR consulting firms can offer advice and guidance as well as providing workplace mediation or workplace investigation services if required.
The person within the organisation who is managing the dispute needs to assess the suitability of mediation as a realistic option. This may have much to do with the nature of the dispute and is one of the reasons early intervention is important as long-standing tensions may be harder to overcome than a matter that is dealt with in a timely fashion. Again, employers may wish to seek professional advice on how to resolve the matter.
If there is no one within the organisation with the appropriate skills and available time to facilitate the mediation process, it is wise to seek outside help. The mediation process must be given adequate time in order to be effective and can sometimes take a day or several days, depending on the circumstances. For mediation to be effective it is important that the parties feel they are able to put their point across and that they are being heard. It may be necessary to find a space outside of the work environment to conduct mediation sessions in order for those involved to feel comfortable in speaking candidly and also to be open to discussion and compromise. It is also important that the mediator is seen to be impartial and sensitive to the needs of the parties and this may mean appointing a mediator who is not directly involved with those in conflict or someone from outside the organisation.
An article in the UK's Law Gazette notes that in 2012/2013 only one quarter of those who used a government funded voluntary conciliation service to resolve a workplace dispute went on to make a claim to an employment tribunal. This reinforces the idea that mediation can be extremely effective in dealing with workplace issues, especially when conducted promptly once an issue is raised. However, it does not always discount the potential need for a workplace investigation and may take place as a step to try and resolve conflict before a workplace investigation is deemed necessary, or after an investigation to help dispel tensions and deal with matters which have come to light during the investigation. Workplace mediation remains a valuable and versatile tool in people management and can save organisations money and headaches in dealing with workplace conflict.
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